At the end of June, the Chinese Communist Party passed a new national security law bringing Hong Kong more fully under China’s control than at any time since the Qing dynasty, more than a century and a half ago. A wave of émigrés could soon leave the territory for foreign shores, and countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Taiwan have pledged to welcome them. But the reception of Hong Kong’s dissidents in these countries may be far more ambivalent than those fleeing the territory have been given reason to expect.

Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and the extensive nature of the new national security legislation have hardened public opinion against China’s Hong Kong policy and prompted world leaders to offer support for the territory’s activists. But the very governments that have been most vocal in this regard either lack or have recently dismantled the domestic protections that would allow them to offer refuge. Leaders promising a safe haven in the name of humanitarianism risk showing themselves to be more clearly concerned with political gain.  

A Narrowing Path

Asylum practices are supposed to stand independent of foreign affairs, but they rarely do. Governmental institutions are tasked with determining whether or not asylum seekers suffer from persecution, and these determinations are often influenced by public opinion and diplomatic relations between the asylum seeker’s country of origin and the host country. Whether people from Hong Kong will qualify for asylum in countries around the world will depend in part on how the Hong Kong leadership and Chinese government enforce the new national security legislation and in part on political calculations within the receiving countries.

Some governments with affable relations with Beijing have approached the matter cautiously. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the only head of state in the EU to publicly address the issue, has said that people from Hong Kong will have the option to seek refuge in Germany through the standard asylum channels open to all but that they won’t be granted special privileges. In contrast, leaders eager to stand up to Beijing have extended assistance to those fleeing Hong Kong and even pledged to expedite their immigration. But these countries—Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Taiwan—are poorly positioned to make good on their promises.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, for instance, has voiced her unreserved support for Hong Kong activists—but Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations and has no domestic asylum law. Although the country can issue visas to people from Hong Kong, it lacks a policy setting forth the rights and protections their holders will enjoy, and those applying for Taiwanese visas could wait for months without protection or any assurance of acceptance. Moreover, to qualify as refugees under the UN’s definition, migrants have to have crossed an international border. China still claims control over Taiwan, and the UN considers the island to be part of Beijing’s domain. People fleeing a Chinese territory for Taiwan could find themselves in a vulnerable position if Beijing decided to test the limits of Taiwanese human rights protections, which include provisions for non-refoulement that protect refugees from forced return. 

People fleeing a Chinese territory for Taiwan could find themselves in a vulnerable position if Beijing decided to test the limits of Taiwanese human rights protections

The United Kingdom might seem a safer option under the circumstances. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that up to three million people who hold or are eligible for British National (Overseas) passports will be allowed to stay in the country for up to 12 months and possibly apply for citizenship. But to qualify for the BNO passport, one has to have been born before 1997, the year that Hong Kong was handed over from the United Kingdom to China. Those who participated in Hong Kong’s protests are largely too young to benefit, and earlier this year, the British Home Office made clear that getting arrested during mass demonstrations was not in itself sufficient to demonstrate credible fear of persecution. Simon Cheng, a former employee of the British consulate in Hong Kong, was granted refugee status in June—but most young dissidents do not share his high profile and will have a harder time within the British immigration system.

The United States purported to address the matter directly with the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, introduced in Congress shortly after the security law passed. The act would effectively fast track asylum applications for people from Hong Kong. But even this provision could fall short, given that under President Donald Trump, the United States has all but dismantled its domestic asylum process, redefining the grounds for protection, granting undue authority to immigration officials, and blocking asylum seekers from reaching ports of entry. In June, the Department of Homeland Security put forward a proposal that would further restrict the grounds on which asylum is granted, allowing the Trump administration to ban entry to people who spend 14 days in another country en route to the United States without claiming asylum there and denying many asylum seekers the opportunity to have their cases heard in front of immigration judges after initial screenings. Asylum processes had already slowed to a crawl under the Trump administration—now, on account of the coronavirus pandemic, the government has begun furloughing some 70 percent of Citizenship and Immigration Services employees, leading to further delays.

Given the obstacles for entering the United Kingdom or the United States, people from Hong Kong may turn instead to Australia, where the government has extended skilled visa offers and the potential for permanent residency to those from the territory. Like Germany, however, Australia has declined to offer people from Hong Kong special privileges as refugees, instead directing them to the usual asylum channels. Those channels are not particularly welcoming: Australia holds a hard line on immigration, detaining some migrants in offshore facilities and publicly campaigning to dissuade others from making the journey.

Australia has seen a surge of asylum seekers in recent years and has yet to process a backlog of thousands of appeals. The country’s vetting standards are particularly strict. Applications for refuge from China have spiked in recent years, but Australia approves a very small number of them. People from Hong Kong will likely face the same obstacles as their counterparts from the mainland, unless they fall within the highly skilled category or are already working or studying in Australia. 

Sound and Fury

Those fleeing Hong Kong are but one particularly visible population that urgently requires the rights to movement, due process, and protection against forced return to be respected. The erosion of asylum systems worldwide is a loss for the larger, global cause of human rights—a cause to which the countries most vocally supporting Hong Kong have supposedly committed themselves.

To voice support for Hong Kong asylum seekers while gutting support for refugees more generally follows a transparent logic of political expedience. In the absence of consistent legal frameworks and independent institutions for hearing and processing asylum claims, the governments that now lend Hong Kong their rhetorical support appear to prioritize denouncing China over independently evaluating the cases of people who may warrant protection. A select few fleeing Hong Kong may find that opposition to the security law opens a pathway to immigration. But so long as governments seek to narrow that pathway for the rest, the pledges they make in the name of democracy and human rights are mere lip service—of a kind that people from Hong Kong know all too well.  

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  • BETSY JOLES is an independent journalist covering China and the surrounding region. 
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