China on Monday dismissed as "groundless" claims that a former US intelligence contractor who is hiding in Hong Kong spied for Beijing, as state media said extraditing him back home would amount to a "betrayal".
China relayed its first concrete comment on the Edward Snowden affair, a day after former US vice president Dick Cheney said he was a "traitor" who may well be acting in cahoots with Beijing's communist government.
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"I think it is completely groundless," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters when asked if Snowden had spied for China.
Last week, Hua said that she had "no information to offer" on the 29-year-old, a former contractor for the US National Security Agency who has exposed a vast NSA operation tapping phones and computer systems around the world.
Snowden has made a series of press leaks since coming to Hong Kong on May 20, declaring his confidence in the former British colony's judicial independence as he vows to fight against any extradition bid by the US government.
His revelations have ensnared America's leading technology firms, which have conceded to handing over user data to Washington, but only when forced by a court order.
Apple on Monday said it had received between 4,000 and 5,000 data requests in six months from US authorities, days after Facebook and Microsoft released similar information.
US authorities insist their targets are only foreign terror suspects and that their snooping, including an online NSA operation code-named PRISM, has helped to thwart attacks.
But Britain's Guardian newspaper, to which Snowden unmasked himself after coming to Hong Kong, said Monday that his document trove appeared to show also that Britain spied on G20 delegates during meetings in London back in 2009.
Britain used "ground-breaking intelligence capabilities" to monitor communications between officials at two G20 meetings in April and September of 2009, it said, adding that the officials targeted included delegates from NATO ally Turkey and from South Africa.
Snowden has also alleged that the NSA targeted "hundreds" of computer networks in mainland China and in Hong Kong.
Hua said the United States -- which has complained long and hard about alleged cyber-espionage by China -- owed the world an explanation.
"We believe that the US side should pay attention to the concerns and demands of the international community and the public over this issue, and give the international community a necessary explanation," the ministry spokeswoman said.
Her comments came after Cheney said he was "deeply suspicious" about Snowden's decision to go to China, although Hong Kong has its own British-derived legal system and a jealously guarded culture of free speech.
"That's not a place where you ordinarily want to go if you're interested in freedom and liberty and so forth," the former vice president said on "Fox News Sunday".
"So, it raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this."
The United States has launched a criminal investigation into Snowden, who has gone to ground in Hong Kong, but has yet to file a formal extradition request to the territory's authorities.
The Global Times, a state-backed Chinese newspaper, said Monday that extraditing Snowden to the United States would be a "betrayal" of his trust and a "face-losing outcome" for Beijing.
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"Unlike a common criminal, Snowden did not hurt anybody. His 'crime' was that he blew the whistle on the US government's violation of civil rights," it said.
If he is sent home, the paper said, "the image of Hong Kong would be forever tarnished".
Its commentary came after China's official army newspaper branded the NSA surveillance program "frightening" and accused the United States of being a "habitual offender" when it comes to covert monitoring of networks.
Half of Hong Kongers believe the city's government should not extradite Snowden, according to a poll published on Sunday, a day after several hundred people braved heavy rain in Hong Kong's first major demonstration in his support.
© AFP 2013