For days, we have been hearing that the leaker of National Security Agency surveillance secrets, Edward Snowden, is hiding out in Hong Kong. Or, to put it in a variety of other ways — all culled from the recent news — he has gone to ground, dropped out of sight, is in hiding, disappeared, vanished. Though he has somehow managed to continue giving interviews, from what the International Business Times describes as “a secret base” in Hong Kong. It sounds like a plot setup from that old master of spy thrillers, Eric Ambler — complete with the twist that a man who has just achieved world fame by exposing surveillance is now trying to stay in the spotlight without actually being spotted. And of course he has gone to ground, disappeared, vanished, in Hong Kong — a place I suspect is still vaguely linked in public imagination to the old romance of Asian ports, of Taipan, intrigue in the tea rooms, Suzie Wong in the bars and back alley mazes into which one can simply disappear (some of that accurate and some of it by now hallucinatory).
OK, whatever else this case is all about, if Snowden has genuinely dropped out of sight in Hong Kong, I am in awe. I lived in Hong Kong from 1986-1993, and have returned fairly often over the years since. There is plenty about modern Hong Kong that I most certainly do not know. But this much I do know. If there is one thing that is insanely difficult to do in Hong Kong, at least for a gweilo — to use the Cantonese word for folks of Snowden’s non-Cantonese ethnic origins — it is nearly impossible to truly drop out of sight.
For starters, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated enclaves on the planet. With 7 million people packed into a relatively small area, the population density is on average about 6,540 persons per square mile. In its most densely populated district, Kwun Tong, the average is 54,530. That does not mean, however, that it is easy for someone like Snowden to get lost in the throng. According to Hong Kong government statistics, 93.6% of those people are of Chinese descent. Only 6.4% are foreign nationals, and of those, a scant 29,000 or so are Americans. In other words, if you are an American in Hong Kong, and people have reasons to be curious about you, it is very hard to hide in a crowd.
So, what about hunkering down in a windowless flat, or a place with curtains drawn, and whiling away the days without ever going out? Well, he’d still have to have gotten there. Even before we get to the basics that Hong Kong is a special autonomous region of the hack-happy surveillance realms of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong is wired. It’s a city of cameras — traffic cameras, private security cameras, mobile phone cameras. Plus, try though you might to take a solitary stroll in the city shadows, with that many people crammed into that little space there just isn’t a lot of solitude. There’s almost always someone, sweeping a curb, shuttering a shop, taking an early morning delivery.
But surely if you just keep your head down in your windowless room, and find someone to bring in the groceries? Not so safe, I’d wager. Hong Kong is a big port city, but in some ways it is also a small town. People talk, they gossip, they see what the neighbors are doing. For someone not foreign, not American and whose face and deeds have not been splashed all over the TV, internet and newspapers, maybe Hong Kong is a place to disappear. But in this case?
How about the outlying islands? Less densely populated, out of the main traffic, still home to hiking trails and out-of-the-way villages and bungalows? For a gweilo, especially one who has just put Hong Kong on the current news-cycle map, the same old distinctions apply. A new foreigner arrives in the village, or on the outskirts? Presumably Snowden speaks no Cantonese. Surely the locals would notice? (Actually, in the unlikely event that he does speak Cantonese, which is famously difficult for foreigners to master, he would likely stand out even more.)
As for slipping out of Hong Kong unnoticed, that’s hugely unlikely, at least by any conventional form of transportation or port of egress. To leave by way of the airport, the land border crossing into China, or by ferry to Macau or up the Pearl River — these all involve presenting yourself, along with your documents, to the authorities. And to leave by less conventional routes — say, a smuggler’s boat — would surely require finding or activating connections that would likely entail their own high risks of attracting official attention.
There are plenty of theories swirling around — that Snowden goofed and picked a bad place to try to hide; or that he could not expect to hide out in Hong Kong without the help of the Chinese authorities; or that he has some plan based on hopes of intricate legal footwork; or maybe he is simply prepared to be found and perhaps, ultimately, extradited. We simply do not know enough of the facts right now to do more than guess.
But hiding out in Hong Kong? Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps it is possible for an Edward Snowden to don sunglasses and a wig, check into a Lan Kwai Fong hotel and go shopping in Central without anyone taking a second look. But I doubt it. If, as reported, he has genuinely dropped out of sight (apart from the interviews), how on earth is he doing it? Paging Eric Ambler…