HONG KONG – In Western democracies they have been welcomed as refugees escaping Beijing’s increased influence on Hong Kong.
In China, they have been denounced as violent criminals who escaped punishment for their seditious activities.
A group of activists from Hong Kong who have been granted asylum in the US, Canada and Germany in the past few weeks is the latest catalyst for the deterioration in relations between China and the West. Western leaders have said they will stand up for human rights in Hong Kong, while Chinese officials have reprimanded the countries for so-called interference in Beijing’s affairs.
The protesters’ newly conferred status has shown how profoundly Hong Kong has changed since China passed a tough new security law this summer. For decades the city has been a haven for people fleeing war, hunger and political oppression in mainland China. Now the semi-autonomous city has become a source of asylum seekers.
“The United States is a country that allows us freedom,” said Vicky Xiao, a 20-year-old Hong Kong university student who lives in California and seeks asylum in America.
Ms. Xiao said she feared she would be arrested if she returned to Hong Kong for participating in the demonstrations that upset the city last year. One of her former classmates, who also took part in the demonstrations in Hong Kong, was arrested by the police, she said.
The United States is directly challenging Beijing for cracking down on Hong Kong. The Trump administration has listed refugees from the city as a priority for the first time – even if it has reduced the total number of refugees the United States will take in annually. At least three bills before Congress would provide greater protection for people fleeing Hong Kong to the US. And the government has acted unusually quickly to give asylum to at least two protesters who left Hong Kong late last year.
The two activists, who asked not to be named in order to protect their families in Hong Kong, showed the New York Times documents showing they had been granted asylum in September. They said they escaped to the Los Angeles area after receiving multiple calls from an unlisted number making them concerned they were in danger of being arrested.
Ms. Xiao, the student awaiting a decision on her asylum application, is also in Southern California. She currently has a student visa and lives with her parents who have a business visa.
She described how she snuck out of her parents’ home with a backpack last August and flew to Hong Kong to join the protests without their consent. She said she returned after three days, but has also helped organize protests in the US that she believes are in danger of being arrested if she is forced to return to Hong Kong after her visa expires.
“I don’t know what will happen to me when I return to Hong Kong,” said Ms. Xiao. “But I don’t think the consequences will be good.”
China has not commented on the US asylum cases. But Beijing and the Hong Kong government have rejected the notion that the city’s residents need protection from repression, saying the authorities guarantee the rights of their people. “There are no so-called ‘refugees who are being persecuted’ in Hong Kong,” the city government said in a statement.
And officials have fought publicly against other countries. Hong Kong’s second-largest leader, Matthew Cheung, on Wednesday called on the German consul general to complain after Germany granted asylum to a university student sought for rioting. Mr Cheung said the move would “only send a clearly false message to criminals”.
In Canada, China’s Ambassador Cong Peiwu warned Ottawa against accepting refugees from Hong Kong. He said such a policy would encourage criminals in the Chinese city and “endanger the good health and safety” of 300,000 Canadian passport holders and businesses in the territory.
The ambassador’s remarks were viewed by some as a potential threat to Canadians in Hong Kong. They were also a reminder of the two Canadians who have been detained in China for almost two years in retaliation for the arrest of a top executive at Huawei, the Chinese tech giant. Canada’s Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne denounced the comments as “totally unacceptable and worrying”. (The Chinese government later claimed the comments were taken out of context.)
China’s crackdown on Hong Kong has led residents to look elsewhere for their options. Some have turned to Britain, Hong Kong’s former colonial master, who has widened the channels for immigration for the city’s residents.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in June that the country would allow UK passport holders in Hong Kong to live and work in the UK for up to five years and later apply for citizenship. The residence plan is open to a total of almost three million people.
China has criticized the plan. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said Friday that Beijing is now considering not recognizing the UK’s overseas passport as a valid travel document.
Interest in passports has increased and the number of international passport holders more than doubled from around 170,000 in 2018 to over 357,000 in April. British government insignia conferring citizenship but not citizenship rights.
Derek Yeung, 60, who worked in technical product sales moved to the UK in August to take advantage of the new policy. He said he had traveled to the mainland often for work and saw corruption and abuse of power. His experience convinced him that he would have to leave Hong Kong at some point after it returned to Chinese rule.
“Based on my experience in China, I predicted that Hong Kong would soon degenerate into a police state,” he said over the phone from Cambridge. The security law passed that summer “only confirmed my fears,” he said.
Overseas activists have also set up nonprofit organizations like Haven Assistance to help Hong Kong protesters manage asylum procedures abroad. Popular destinations include the US, UK, Germany and Taiwan, which opened a government office this summer to support asylum seekers from Hong Kong.
The group was started by Simon Cheng, who was granted political asylum in the UK in June, and other activists. Mr Cheng says he receives 10 to 15 asylum requests a day in the UK alone.
“I’m safe here now, but I have to help more people,” said Mr. Cheng. “I can’t be like a free rider.”
Mr. Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, was detained in mainland China for 15 days last year and charged with soliciting prostitution, a charge he denies. He says he was beaten and hung in a splayed eagle position for hours while in custody and forced to make a videotaped confession.
Mr Cheng said that as an overseas passport holder, he was entitled to stay in the UK, but that asylum would demonstrate the injustice of his experience.
“I wanted to fight for my reputation to show my politically motivated imprisonment that it was real persecution,” he said.