Hong Kong pro-democracy activists beg Congress for refugee status

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A coalition of Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in exile has issued an urgent public plea to the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that will grant refugee status to Hong Kong citizens with “well-founded fears of persecution” by the territory’s authorities.

The letter obtained by POLITICO calls on Congress to grant Priority 2 Refugee Status to Hong Kong’s peaceful pro-democracy protesters seeking resettlement, Temporary Protection Status to Hong Kong citizens already in the U.S. and an extension of visas “to high-skilled Hong Kong residents with an associate degree or above.”

The letter is signed by seven high-profile Hong Kong pro-democracy activists currently living in exile, including former lawmakers Ted Hui, who has found refuge in Australia, and Baggio Leung, who now lives in exile in the U.S. Eighteen foreign-based Hong Kong pro-democracy civil society organizations, including Hong Kong Watch, the Hong Kong Affairs Association of Berkeley and the UC-San Diego Hong Kong Cultural Society are also signatories.

Those protections echo those granted by then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush in an Executive Order issued in 1990 after the Tiananmen Massacre that allowed Chinese students in the U.S. to remain in the country if they feared state persecution back in China. Congress followed up on that Executive Order with the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992. The nongovernmental refugee rights advocacy organization Refugee Council USA urged then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in July 2020 “to find ways to help people impacted by the situation in Hong Kong” and specifically to utilize the U.S. Refugee Admission Program to ensure that “refugees from Hong Kong are granted asylum should they flee to the United States.”

The letter argues Hong Kong citizens deserve U.S. legislative protection due to accelerating erosion of the territory’s human rights protections and rule of law: it cites official prohibitions on freedom of expression and association, mass arrests of pro-democracy activists under Hong Kong’s draconian new National Security Law, and intensifying official attacks on media freedom.

The letter asks Congress to act quickly, warning that the Hong Kong government is “closing travel routes” for citizens fearful of government reprisals for peaceful protest. Hong Kong’s restrictive new immigration law takes effect on August 1, which has the potential to impose “exit bans” on government critics. Hong Kong police already have a “wanted list” of individuals subject to arrest if they try to leave the territory.

The proposed legislative protections outlined in the letter mirror those of the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act 2021 co-sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in February 2021. Rubio dedicated that initiative to “those Hong Kongers who have courageously stood up to defend the city they love from the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] persecution and open our doors to them.”

Another of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Jeff Cornyn (R-TX), reiterated his support for the bill in an email message to POLITICO, asserting that it will allow Hong Kong citizens to apply for U.S. refugee status “through the U.S. Consulate in in Hong Kong and other safe harbors in the region.” The bill has been read twice and has been referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

President Joe Biden has not signaled where he stands on the bill and its potentially provocative impact on the fraught U.S.-China bilateral relationship. He has yet to formally respond to a June 30 letter from the bicameral foreign affairs leadership — including Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Asia, and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia — on what steps, if any, the administration was taking “to help those seeking to leave Hong Kong for fear of retribution or persecution for their pro-democracy activities.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed vague support for some form of refugee protection for Hong Kong citizens, telling CNBC in February 2021 that if Hong Kong citizens are “the victims of repression from Chinese authorities, we should do something to give them haven.”

The United Kingdom in July 2020 responded to concerns about the situation in Hong Kong by offering resettlement and a route to citizenship for those 350,000 Hong Kong citizens who held British National (Overseas) passports prior to the U.K.’s handover of its former colony to China in 1997.

Johnny Patterson, policy director at the nonprofit pro-democracy organization Hong Kong Watch, told POLITICO that U.S. legislative moves to provide refugee status to fearful Hong Kong citizens can provide a “lifeline” to younger Hong Kongers who don’t qualify for that program.

“When the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, the United States became a vital place of sanctuary for young [Chinese] democrats,” Patterson said. “Now is the time to offer the same hand of welcome to Hong Kongers.”

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