Hong Kong Activists Denied Asylum After Rush to U.S. Consulate

Four activists were reportedly turned away from the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong following a bid to seek there on Tuesday, in a dramatic incident that followed several national security arrests and the interception of another prominent activist trying to seek asylum on the same day. According to the South China Morning Post’s Chris Lau and Mantai Chow, a reporter witnessed four people running into the consulate on Tuesday afternoon:

It is understood that the four – after a Post reporter saw them running up Garden Road and talking to security guards at the entrance before they were allowed into the compound – were later rejected, but there was no official confirmation.

Sources said mainland Chinese officials in Hong Kong were aware of their attempt and closely monitoring what could have erupted into a major diplomatic row, had the would-be asylum seekers been accepted.

One source familiar with the situation said the group was seeking asylum in the , and the Post can confirm that at least one of them faces charges stemming from last year’s anti-government protests. [Source]

Local media outlets including pro-Beijing newspaper Oriental Daily have also reported that the four were rejected. U.S. officials have not confirmed the incident or the rejection of the asylum applicants.

The incident on Tuesday afternoon followed the interception of another activist, Tony Chung Hon-lam. Chung was the former leader of Studentlocalism, a localist group that once called for the establishment of an independent “Republic of Hong Kong.” He was arrested in July in the first police operation to enforce the , and charged with “inciting secession” for his posts on social media. On Tuesday morning, he was intercepted by police officers with the national security unit outside the U.S. consulate. According to details reported by Hong Kong Free Press’ Kelly Ho, Chung was waiting for the consulate to open in order to apply for asylum:

Friends of Hong Kong, a democratic advocacy group founded by UK-based Hongkongers, told local newspaper Apple Daily that the 19-year-old had intended to ask for asylum at the consulate in Central.

It said he had told the group at around 8.10 am that he was being tailed, and lost contact minutes later. Apple Daily cited an eyewitness as saying Chung was taken away by at least four people suspected to be police national security personnel. [Source]

In late July, Radio Free Asia’s Chinese service reported that Chung had sought assistance from Taiwan multiple times, but was apparently rejected:

Two other members of Studentlocalism, William Chan and Yanni Ho, who were previously charged along with Chung in July, were re-arrested on national security-related charges later on Tuesday. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Wenxin Fan, Hong Kong police declined to identify the individuals arrested, but stated that they were charged in relation to social media posts published since September.

On Twitter, Chinese politics expert Sheena Greitens analyzed the reasons for the consulate’s rejection of the activists’ asylum claims.

Part of the reason for this, as South China Morning Post’s Kinling Lo reported, is that U.S. asylum attempts have proven to be significant points of tension in the US-China relationship. The asylum attempts come at a particularly sensitive time in the final days before the U.S. presidential election, and as China’s top leaders gather in Beijing for key meetings.

“This case is definitely a hot potato for the current US administration given the timing of the election campaign. If this case escalated to become a diplomatic issue, it would surely be big trouble for Trump and his team. Both presidential candidates would not want to see such an incident, it could affect the result one way or another,” Lu Xiang, a specialist on US affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

Li Xiaobing, a Hong Kong expert and a law professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, said this event was a “moment of truth” testing the political will of China and the United States in Hong Kong.

“The Chinese leadership is having their crucial meetings in Beijing, planning out the next 15 years, and America is entering the final days of the presidential race.

“I am very sure China will certainly stand very firm on such matters involving its sovereignty, and the US will have to contemplate whether this is the best moment to rock the boat.” [Source]

In previous cases where Hong Kongers were granted asylum overseas, Beijing has reacted angrily towards the governments concerned. CDT earlier wrote about the Chinese ambassador’s threats to the Canadian government in response to its decision to grant two activists asylum, as well as the Hong Kong government’s protestations about a similar move by Germany last week.

Nonetheless, a growing number of Hong Kongers are attempting to seek refuge overseas. The South China Morning Post’s Cheryl Heng and Jeffie Lam reported that the number of Hong Kongers applying for asylum in the West is up this year:

As of September, 136 asylum seekers had headed to Australia, up from about 120 last year, and about 50 in 2018. Canada, meanwhile, had seen 25 Hongkongers seeking refugee status as of June, up from nine last year, and two in 2018.

There were also small numbers of applications for asylum in Britain, Germany and New Zealand, with each locale similarly registering an upwards trend.

A total of 181 Hongkongers have applied for asylum in the five countries this year, checks by the Post found, up from 141 last year, and 62 in 2018. [Source]

Taiwan has also emerged as a popular potential destination for Hong Kongers looking to emigrate. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government announced in May that it would study ways to accept Hong Kong residents on humanitarian grounds. But the allure of Taiwan as a place of refuge was challenged in August by 12 Hong Kong activists’ perilous attempt to covertly travel to the island from Hong Kong by sea. Their escape attempt was foiled when the 12 were arrested by the Chinese Coast Guard and handed over to police in Shenzhen, where they remain detained without access to lawyers. Subsequent evidence suggests that the Hong Kong government may have monitored and tacitly allowed the Hong Kongers to depart the territory in order to be captured by Chinese authorities at sea.

Other news reports have highlighted the danger and challenges faced by Hong Kongers seeking asylum abroad. The Washington Post’s Shibani Mahtani reported on the mental hardship experienced by a group of former protestors seeking asylum abroad:

A group of four protesters, ages 19 to 23, all of whom declined to be named because of safety concerns, fled to Britain in April and May, having become concerned about their futures after they were arrested last year. As they plotted an exit, Britain stood out as one of the few places that would admit Hong Kong residents without a quarantine period amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Entering as tourists, they rented a small house in a British town they do not want to disclose. They have minimal contact with relatives, who do not know their whereabouts. All were working or studying before leaving Hong Kong, but now spend their days doing nothing while they wait for a more permanent status that would allow them to work legally. Because they were born after Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Britain to China, they are not eligible for the British National (Overseas) passports that would grant some 3 million Hong Kongers a path to British citizenship under measures London announced recently.

“If I go back to June 2019, would I still choose to protest?” one of the exiles, a 22-year-old, said in an interview. “Sometimes I think about it. I have no answer.” [Source]

CDT previously reported on details of the U.K.’s BN(O) visa scheme, which opens up a pathway to citizenship for over three million Hong Kongers. A report by the U.K. government estimates that as many as one million Hong Kongers could immigrate under the scheme in the next five years.

The prospect of an immigration wave from Hong Kong has also spurred action among civil society groups abroad. From the diasporic community, groups are forming to assist the growing wave of Hong Kongers looking to move abroad. The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy and Maria Abi-Habib reported on one new organization formed by the Hong Kong diaspora to provide resources and support to new and potential immigrants:

Overseas activists have also set up nonprofits like Haven Assistance to help Hong Kong’s protesters navigate asylum procedures abroad. Popular destinations include the United States, Britain, Germany and Taiwan, which opened a government office to assist asylum seekers from Hong Kong this summer.

The group was started by Simon Cheng, who was granted political asylum in Britain in June, and other activists. Mr. Cheng says he gets 10 to 15 inquiries a day about asylum procedures in Britain alone.

[…] Mr. Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, had been detained for 15 days in mainland China last year and accused of soliciting prostitution, a charge he denies. He says that while he was in custody he was beaten and hung for hours in a spread-eagle position, and coerced into making a videotaped confession.

Mr. Cheng said that as an overseas passport holder, he was eligible to stay in Britain, but that gaining asylum would demonstrate the injustice of his experience.

“I wanted to fight for my reputation, to show my detention politically motivated, that it was intrinsically persecution,” he said. [Source]

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