The Debate | Opinion

The EU’s Cynical Hong Kong Proposal

The bloc’s offer to Hong Kongers sends the message that Europe only supports the rich.

The EU’s Cynical Hong Kong Proposal
Credit: Flickr/Studio Incendo

After the controversial sentencing of democratic activists in Hong Kong on April 16, a number of Western countries issued statements denouncing the action. The European Union (EU), however, failed to come out with its own statement, due to the apparent lack of unity among the member states.

Paradoxically, this was supposed to be the strongest statement from the EU regarding events in Hong Kong, and the ubiquitous words of “condemnation” and “concern” were supposed to be accompanied by concrete actions. However, decisions within the realm of the common foreign and security policy of the EU must be made in unanimity and leaked reports indicate that one of the states, Hungary, came out against the proposal.

Most of the subsequent commentary has focused on analyzing Hungary’s motives and attitudes, calling it, among other labels, China’s Trojan horse in Europe. While direct evidence is lacking, it is not hard to arrive at such a conclusion, given how Hungary has behaved in recent years.

What the commentariat largely omitted is a hard look the content of the proposed actions. While only leaked reports are available, those suggest that the most notable actions were the aim to scrap extradition treaties with China, and to provide a scheme to help Hong Kongers settle in the EU.

Both of these points are problematic, although I’ll focus on the latter point. The former should not have been on the agenda at all, since the 10 relevant member states should have stopped such treaties long time ago, as China escalated its repressive actions in both Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

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The leaked document mentioned that the EU was planning “to welcome ‘highly qualified’ Hong Kong workers and students to the bloc.” This is a highly problematic statement, as it indicates that the final beneficiary of this action would not be Hong Kongers, but the EU itself.

Why welcome “highly qualified” people only and not open the scheme to everyone in Hong Kong? The EU seems to be a latecomer to the rush to capitalize on Hong Kong’s brain drain. Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, and, most notably, the United Kingdom made their moves much earlier by offering skilled and wealthy Hong Kongers a streamlined path toward citizenship.

The U.K. in particular was ahead of the curve, as it changed the rules for the holders of its unique British National Overseas passports. These documents, a reminder of the colonial practice of treating Hong Kongers as second-class citizens, now allow anyone born prior to 1997 to take up employment in the U.K. and over time become eligible for citizenship.

The initial British offer was rather expensive and not affordable for many of the young protesters who are most at risk. However, a recent adjustment to the rules introduced a provision of financial support for eligible applicants. Moreover, while many of the protesters were born after 1997 and are not directly eligible, the British offer can still apply to them as family members are covered under the plan.

We do not have any details about the European proposal; however, limiting it to “highly skilled” workers and students makes it immediately much narrower in scope than the British plan. It also is inexplicably discriminatory. Highly skilled workers tend to be much richer than workers lacking such qualifications, making it already much easier for them to emigrate.

It might be worthwhile to remind European officials that it is the youth of Hong Kong who will bear the brunt of the increasing oppression in the special administrative region, despite the fact that the recent sentencings mostly targeted seasoned activists. These people are at the start of their professional careers; therefore, they have not had the chance to accumulate expertise and experience, which are the most likely prerequisites for a “highly skilled” qualification.

On the contrary, the “highly qualified workers” scheme may support those who have assisted both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments in dismantling democracy and undermining rule of law in the former British colony. It is no secret that government officials are eager to acquire foreign citizenship for themselves and their offspring, as exemplified in the families of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung, and a vast number of other highly paid bureaucrats.

There are multiple messages the EU is sending with this proposal. First, it wants to help rich people, while leaving the poor to the whims of an increasingly authoritarian government. Second, it is unclear how luring the city’s brightest people away from Hong Kong is going to help preserve democracy and rule of law in the special administrative region. A contest for democracy and human rights requires a high amount of human capital.

Third, it appears that EU bureaucrats missed the debate on the issue in the U.K. The British offer was initially also very narrow in scope, to the disadvantage of the less wealthy would-be immigrants. However, following criticism and consultation, the offer was gradually expanded. Even if we assume that the EU offer was compiled under time pressure and was guided by noble intentions, the inability to learn from precedents is disappointing

Those who focus on the substance of the proposal rather than on the form must sadly conclude that the EU is using the language of values and human rights to mask its attempt to join the scramble for Hong Kong’s human resources and poach some talents for itself. This hardly fits the image of “normative power Europe,” which aims to diffuse norms and values into the international system.

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At the end of the day, Hungary may have actually done the EU a favor by vetoing such a disgraceful proposal. Representatives of Viktor Orban’s government have given European diplomats extra time to reconsider their approach to Hong Kong. Let us hope they will use it wisely. The European Union can certainly do better.