Obama administration officials may be upset that China intervened to help NSA leaker Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong but they shouldn't be surprised. Beijing has intervened before to get its way on matters that were meant to be the purview of Hong Kong's independent judicial system and to stymie the territory's democracy movement.
In 1999, Beijing engineered an override of a decision by Hong Kong's highest court in a case about who had the right to live in Hong Kong, a matter of great importance in the city, which abuts Mainland China and attracts foreign workers. More than the actual result, Beijing was keen to make clear that it, not Hong Kong's renowned judiciary, had the final word on interpreting the territory's Basic Law. Beijing has also interfered in the criminal justice system, prosecuting in its non-independent courts, crimes committed in Hong Kong.
The rule of law ultimately depends on a democratic system. Under British colonial rule, Hong Kong's rule of law was linked through the governor to a democratically elected government in London. Now, Hong Kong courts are overseen from a communist leadership in Beijing. The prospects that the communist leaders there will allow Hong Kong to become fully democratic are approximately zero. Beijing is operating more and more openly in Hong Kong's political development, pushing back tentative dates for a electing the chief executive and a fully democratic legislature. Hong Kong's chief executive, chosen by Beijing, is increasingly irrelevant as the Snowden episode showed.
When Hong Kong reverted to mainland rule, the U.S. made autonomy the basis of U.S. policy and a matter of U.S. law. Administration officials serving at the time of the handover, like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, pledged that the U.S. would stand up for Hong Kong's autonomy. But Hong Kong has never been a priority for administrations pursuing relations with Beijing and the State Department stopped filing congressionally mandated reports on Hong Kong's autonomy under Chinese rule in 2007.
Not until now, on a matter of direct importance to Washington, has an administration reacted so strongly to Beijing's meddling in Hong Kong. White House press spokesman Jay Carney spoke mainly of the "serious setback" in U.S. - China relations and the blow to "mutual trust." Absent from the administration's reaction was any mention of Hong Kong's autonomy, or the erosion of rule of law and effective law enforcement cooperation between the U.S. and Hong Kong. Perhaps if, starting in 1997, there had been consequences for violations of Hong Kong's autonomy, phalanxes of lawyers would be battling over Snowden's extradition in Hong Kong's courts.