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Former U.S. Officials Urge Refugee Status for Hong Kongers

Pressure mounts for Congress to pass safe-harbor legislation to let Hong Kongers escape China’s newest police state.

Riot police detain a woman at a rally in Hong Kong.
Riot police detain a woman as they clear protesters taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1. Dale De La Rey/AFP via Getty Images

More than 20 former senior U.S. diplomats and defense officials are urging Congress in a letter to pass legislation that would give Hong Kong residents asylum in the United States after China passed a sweeping national security law that tightens its grip over the formerly semi-autonomous territory.

The letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, reflects growing alarm in the West over the fate of Hong Kong and many of its pro-democracy activists who have organized monthslong protests against Beijing’s suppression of the city’s political freedom and civil liberties. The United Kingdom has already offered asylum for 3 million residents of its former colony, and both senior Australian and Canadian lawmakers have signaled that they want their countries to do the same.

“Beijing’s latest move to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong, even as it circumvented the city’s elected legislature, has undermined the rights of the people of Hong Kong and signaled a fundamental breaking of China’s promises,” the letter reads. “The United States must work closely together with countries around the world to support the people of Hong Kong who are threatened by this new law.”

The Trump administration has so far responded to China’s imposition of the national security law by preparing mostly punitive measures: revoking the special economic relationship Hong Kong enjoyed with the United States that allowed it to sidestep the U.S.-China trade war, toying with shutting down Hong Kong’s access to U.S. dollars, and sanctioning Chinese officials who participated in crackdowns there. Legislation pending in Congress, in contrast, would offer Hong Kong residents a lifeline, not a bullwhip.

“The situation in Hong Kong is urgent. This is about providing tangible support to the people of Hong Kong when they need it most,” said Michael Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the Obama administration, who helped organize the letter. “It is also an attempt to show Beijing that a Hong Kong under [Chinese Communist Party] control may not be the same vibrant economic hub that it has been.”

The letter, signed by a host of luminaries including nine former U.S. consul generals to Hong Kong, the top U.S. diplomats posted there, urged lawmakers to pass a series of bills that would give Hong Kong residents legal avenues to flee the embattled territory for the United States. 

The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act—co-sponsored in the Senate by Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat—would offer asylum to Hong Kong residents and their family members deemed most at risk of persecution by Chinese authorities, including protesters and activists. Their numbers would not be restricted by the Trump administration’s current cap on the number of refugees admitted into the United States.

The Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act—introduced in the House by Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, and Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican—would expedite immigration for highly skilled Hong Kong residents looking to move to the United States. It would also fast-track residency status for Hong Kongers who have already fled to the United States—mirroring a law that the George H.W. Bush administration used to help protect Chinese students in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

“By passing both these bills, Congress would show that America is prepared to open its doors not just to brave activists and peaceful protestors but also other Hongkongers that Beijing fears will leave,” the letter’s signatories wrote. “The situation in Hong Kong is urgent and requires a strong U.S. response rooted firmly in our values and long history of providing safe harbor to those fleeing tyranny.”

The bills have bipartisan support, but it’s not certain they have enough votes to pass both chambers. It’s also unclear if U.S. President Donald Trump, who has made restricting legal and illegal immigration the centerpiece of his administration, would support the bills.

Trump on Tuesday said he signed a bipartisan bill that would sanction Chinese officials over the crackdown on Hong Kong, in the latest diplomatic escalation between the two countries. The president also signed an executive order that will roll back decades-old U.S. policies that favored Hong Kong over China, including suspending the U.S. extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

Fuchs said Congress was stepping up on its response to Hong Kong to fill a void left by Trump’s inaction. While railing against Beijing publicly, Trump has privately signaled wants to scale back the confrontation with China, opting against new sanctions on top Chinese officials and rejecting a plan to undermine the Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the U.S. dollar, as Bloomberg reported. This leaves Congress in the driver’s seat for any new measures on the Hong Kong.

“Trump has no credibility on Hong Kong, and has been forced by Congress to take action,” he said. “Meanwhile, in Congress, Hong Kong is a mostly bipartisan issue, and so there has been overwhelming support for standing up for the people of Hong Kong and U.S. interests there—especially since Trump hasn’t.”

Update, July 15, 2020: This article was updated with new reports of Trump’s Hong Kong policies. 

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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