It has become clear that China has no intention of honoring Hong Kong’s special autonomous status. The Basic Law — Hong Kong’s mini-constitution that was meant to govern the city until 2047 — looks set to be severely undermined by the proposed new national security legislation that Beijing seeks to impose on the city. With the future of Hong Kong autonomy looking increasingly weak, and given the broader implications of Beijing’s control of the city, countries like Australia need to prepare themselves for the consequences of the shifting reality.
In October last year the South China Morning Post reported that over 40 percent of Hong Kong residents were contemplating emigrating, with Australia, Canada, and Taiwan being the most preferred destinations. It is likely that these people’s fears about Beijing’s increasing grip on the city have only become more pronounced in recent weeks. And as difficult a decision as it may be, many Hong Kongers will be looking for new places to live.
Because of this, options for people from Hong Kong are already being assessed. It was reported in the United Kingdom’s Sunday Express this week that the government of Boris Johnson is considering a plan to give Hong Kong citizens refuge in the U.K. It is currently unclear whether this would just apply to the 315,000 people in Hong Kong who hold the status of British National Overseas (BNO), which — at present — affords holders the right to visa-free travel to the U.K., but not permanent residency.
Predictably, the Chinese government’s English-language propaganda outlet, The Global Times, dubbed this proposal “interference in China’s internal affairs.” A mass exodus of people from Hong Kong would be a serious embarrassment to Beijing, a sign that people are willing to give up their homes, livelihoods, and cultural attachment to the city in order to avoid being governed by the Chinese Communist Party. It would be a stark assessment of just how distrustful the people of Hong Kong are toward Beijing.
This lack of trust in Beijing’s desire to maintain the status quo and protect the rights of people in Hong Kong is clearly also shared by a number of Western capitals. Last week Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne issued a joint statement with her British and Canadian counterparts expressing that they are “deeply concerned” with the situation in Hong Kong, and that the new national security legislation “would clearly undermine the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ under which Hong Kong is guaranteed a high degree of autonomy.”
A more blunt illustration of this global distrust occurred in 2018 when two activists from Hong Kong were granted asylum in Germany, the first cases of asylum being granted to democracy advocates from the territory. The decision by Germany may set a precedent for countries like Australia to be able to provide asylum for public advocates of Hong Kong’s autonomy, should Beijing seek further measures to try and eradicate resistance.
During the protests in Hong Kong last year, there were calls from Hong Kong-Australian community groups to the Australian government to allow citizens of Hong Kong on temporary visas to remain in the country indefinitely. With Beijing’s intention to override Hong Kong’s autonomous status increasingly obvious, this could be a measure Canberra is considering. Such a response does have a precedent in Australia. In 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke granted permanent residency to all 42,000 Chinese nationals who were in Australian at the time on temporary visas. It is likely that China would view such an act as provocative, and use its economic weight to retaliate.
Yet as the South China Morning Post report indicated, many citizens of Hong Kong are already suspicious enough of the changing situation in the city that they may be seeking to use Australia’s skilled migration program to emigrate. Through this channel the Australian government wouldn’t need to make any bold statement that could irritate China; it could simply look kindly on these people’s applications and temporarily expand the country’s annual quota to accommodate the situation. Many people from Hong Kong would already have the education and skills necessary to fulfill the requirements of Australia’s points-based immigration system. However, this may leave those without the ability to meet these criteria vulnerable to the changing nature of Hong Kong.
Even with these migration opportunities, applications still take time, and Australia’s family reunion visa stream has an extended queue. Australia’s various temporary visa schemes may offer a more rapid pathway to migration, but would fail to offer people from Hong Kong the long-term security that they may currently seek.
The almost entire halt in global people movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic also complicates matter significantly, although it may buy Australia some time to plan an effective response. If there is considerable interest from people in Hong Kong to migrate to Australia then Canberra should view this as both a moral obligation and an advantageous opportunity to help facilitate these people’s desire to live in a free and transparent society.