Xu Zhiyong had been locked down under house arrest for three months when the police marched through the cordon of security agents surrounding his home last week to charge him with "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place."

Xu is a law professor with a reputation as one of China's most meticulously courteous and law-abiding activists.

His real crime in the eyes of the ruling Communist Party and the security apparatus is not whipping up a crowd while home alone in an apartment surrounded by cops. It is his persistence in arguing that China should be governed by its laws and constitution.

"Of course, if people as moderate and reasonable as me cannot escape being locked up in prison, so be it." Xu wrote about his three days of police interrogation just before his arrest. "It's the misfortune of the Chinese people, and I will surrender myself to my destiny."

Reading Xu's words, I heard echoes of a recording I'd listened to a couple of days before of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

America's dissident wannabe was staking his claim to the moral high ground as the public address system at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport boomed out in the background, announcing flight departures he dared not take.

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A recent picture of Snowden, made available by Human Rights Watch following a meeting with Russian activists and officials at Sheremetyevo airport in mid-July. (Tatyana Lokshina / Reuters)

"A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort," Snowden said. "I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize and read your communications.

"Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing,"

Snowden's campaign to tell the world about America's vast electronic spying apparatus has clearly cost him personally.

But it has also become irretrievably confused by his mystifying decision to seek protection first from China, which is remorseless in persecuting people like Xu Zhiyong who dare speak truth to power, and then from Russia, where President Vladimir Putin continues a long history of crushing dissent.

In the process, he has provided not only a rich motherlode of hypocritical propaganda to two of the world's more oppressive regimes, he's also waved four laptops loaded with classified material under their noses.

Michael Hayden, a former director of both the NSA and CIA, and now a "terrorism analyst" for CNN, writes on that network's website that he would "lose all respect for China's Ministry of State Security and Russia's FSB if they have not already fully harvested Snowden's digital data trove."

Lost mystique

Since his statement from somewhere in the bowels of Sheremetyevo, Snowden has largely fallen silent. President Vladimir Putin warned that he would not be granted asylum if he continued to divulge secrets damaging to the U.S.

Once willing to risk his freedom by speaking out against American spying, Snowden is now desperately trying to regain a semblance of it by keeping quiet in exchange for permission to stay a bit longer in Russia while he seeks permanent refuge … somewhere.

His situation could become more precarious if the allies he's shared material with, such as WikiLeaks, resume the torrent of leaks that a Snowden confidante has suggested is being held in reserve.

The fact that the U.S. government has charged Snowden with espionage has severely limited his travel options. Despite the charges, a recent poll shows that most Americans view Snowden as a whistleblower rather than a traitor, by a margin of 55 per cent to 34.

That may change the longer he stays in Russia. Anatoly Kucherena, the Russian lawyer who has been "helping" Snowden with his asylum request and speaking for him, has ties to the Kremlin and to Russia's intelligence service, the FSB.

By comparison, Xu Zhiyong's situation at least has a degree of clarity.

In this particular instance, his offence seems to be agreeing with new President Xi Jinping, whose first few months in office have been marked by a campaign against official "corruption, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance."

As the state's anti-corruption campaign got under way, Prof. Xu began his own campaign for a law requiring officials to disclose their personal assets, knowing that top leaders will never allow public scrutiny of the vast fortunes their families have amassed in recent years.

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Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who has been advising Snowden, said late Wednesday that the American's temporary asylum status in Russia has not been resolved, despite what was previously announced. (Associated Press)

Like Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate serving an 11-year prison term for "inciting subversion to state power", Xu stands in the long tradition of principled opposition to Communist Party misrule.

As Snowden will discover, the power of such prisoners of conscience to move public opinion tends to diminish if ever they leave the country. This is especially true for Chinese dissidents.

Democracy Wall activist Wei Jingsheng, for example, had enormous stature as he soldiered through 17 years of prison for a crime similar to Xu's — asking a Chinese leader to turn words into deeds. (Wei challenged Deng Xiaoping to include democracy in his economic reform program of the 1970s.)

Since agreeing to go to the U.S. in 1997, Wei has become just another exile politician, writing reams of press releases and engaging in arcane disputes with his fellow exiles.

Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer who inspired the world with his breathtaking resourcefulness during years of persecution, is also having difficulty adjusting to life in the U.S. since his dramatic escape from China last year (after seeking refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing).

Such icons lose their mystique once they leave China. Snowden lost his the minute he tried to go there.