Last July, five young men boarded a recreational boat in a remote Hong Kong harbor. They passed waters monitored by the Chinese authorities and headed east across the South China Sea.

As they approached Taiwan, they turned off their engine and hoped to be rescued by the Taiwanese Coast Guard. You were lucky.

Now, after months in Taiwan, they intend to seek asylum in the United States, where they arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York on Wednesday.

You are part of a group of political activists who have fled Hong Kong since the Chinese central government imposed a tough national security law on the city in June that eradicates many forms of political disagreement, including the anti-democracy protests in which the five men participated took part.

The account of their escape from Hong Kong, their stay in Taiwan, and their arrival in the United States was provided by Samuel Chu, founder of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a Washington-based advocacy group that arranged the men’s travel and accommodation provided assistance in applying for asylum. None of the five men wanted to be identified out of concern that doing so could endanger their relatives in Hong Kong. One of them spoke on condition of anonymity.

Recognition…Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images

While in Taiwan, they were held at a military base and were not allowed to communicate with family and friends, although the man who agreed to be interviewed said they had been treated well. They believed the United States was giving them the best chance to start their lives over, he said.

After weeks of negotiations, the men were allowed to enter the United States on humanitarian grounds, Chu said.

Their arrival in the United States could add further tension between China and the United States and pose an early challenge to the future Biden administration, as relations between the two countries are at their lowest level in decades.

China has labeled Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters criminals, while the United States and other democracies have challenged China for cracking down on the city’s freedoms. The involvement of Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy claimed by China, only adds to the sensitivity.

State Department spokespersons and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to comment on the case, citing privacy concerns. A spokesman for the American Institute in Taiwan, which is the de facto American embassy there, would not comment either, nor would a spokesman for the Taiwanese Council on Mainland Affairs.

All five protesters, ages 18-26, fled Hong Kong on fear of being arrested soon and at least one had previously been arrested in connection with his role in the protests, Chu said.

The Trump administration’s move in recent days to allow men in on humanitarian grounds contrasts with its dramatic cut in refugee quotas over the past four years. In December, legislation in Congress that would have made it easier for Hong Kong residents to obtain refugee status was blocked by Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas.

A few years ago, the idea of ​​political dissidents fleeing Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, would have been inconceivable. Hong Kong’s more than 7 million people have one of the world’s highest per capita incomes and enjoy political freedoms unknown in mainland China.

After Xi Jinping became China’s leading state in late 2012, Beijing began to rule Hong Kong with an increasingly heavy hand. The national security law, passed in 2019 after massive and sometimes violent protests against democracy, has caused some activists to leave. Most left much less dramatically and got on a plane to Europe or North America. others feared arrest at the airport and went to the sea.

In August, weeks after the five men made it to Taiwan, 12 other Hong Kong activists were caught by the Chinese Coast Guard trying to reach the island. Most of them had been arrested in Hong Kong and wanted to leave to avoid trial. You have been detained in mainland China for months without charge; In December, 10 of the activists were sentenced to between seven months and three years in prison, two for organizing the attempt to escape and the other for illegally crossing the border. Two other activists, both teenagers, were returned to Hong Kong.

Other countries have also welcomed activists from Hong Kong. Canada has granted asylum to 14 people from Hong Kong since late December, according to a statement by the New Hong Kong Cultural Club Canada, a volunteer group that supports political refugees from the city. In October, the Hong Kong government protested against Germany’s granting of asylum to a demonstration leader who had been charged with rioting.

The UK is offering a new visa to Hong Kong residents, potentially allowing the millions of them born before the 1997 surrender to become British citizens.

Amy Qin and Amy Chang Chien contributed to the coverage.

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