TAIPEI, Taiwan — A day after China began to enforce a sweeping national security law over Hong Kong, several governments were moving to offer the territory's residents the opportunity to resettle abroad as they grapple with the new reality of a city fundamentally transformed by the legislation.
Britain, Taiwan, Australia and the United States are among those that have proposed special measures that would absorb Hongkongers as refugees. The immigration proposals remain tentative in some cases, but they are already opening a fresh rift with Beijing, which has lashed out at the prospect of other jurisdictions helping Hong Kong citizens to flee in droves.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made the broadest offer Wednesday to Britain’s former colonial subjects as he announced a “bespoke” legal waiver to allow up to 3 million Hong Kongers to enter Britain and eventually apply for full citizenship. On Thursday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters he was “prepared to step up” and offer a “similar” deal, although he said he was still formulating the terms.
In Taiwan, which does not have a refugee law and has historically treated mainland Chinese asylum seekers carefully and on a case-by-case basis, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration opened a new government office Wednesday to provide aid to Hong Kong dissidents and business people looking to emigrate. On its first day, the office received 180 inquiries from Hong Kong, many of them from people interested in an investment immigration program, said Chiu Chui-Cheng, deputy head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council.
The immigration proposals amount to the first point of contention to arise immediately in the wake of the national security legislation’s rollout, with foreign governments, particularly Washington, poised to make more moves in response.
As early as this week, Congress could seek President Trump’s signature on a “Hong Kong Autonomy” bill that would enforce sanctions on banks that do business with certain Chinese government entities, dramatically raising the stakes in the fight over the city of roughly 7.5 million people.
Lawmakers from both parties and chambers also launched “safe harbor” legislation that would require the State Department to designate as humanitarian refugees Hong Kongers who organized the protests or provided volunteer medical aid or media coverage at the events. Those people could arrive in the United States under the legislation and seek permanent residency or citizenship.
Hong Kong police made 370 arrests Wednesday as thousands of people poured into the streets to protest the law, which took effect at midnight. Some radical protesters fought police, blocked traffic, vandalized stores and chanted independence slogans — actions newly defined by the law as terrorism and separatism.
Police said they arrested 10 people on the first day under the new law, including a 15-year old girl who waved a pro-independence flag and a 24-year-old man who was accused of stabbing a police officer. Police said the man was escorted off a flight Thursday moments before it took off for London, where he presumably sought to flee.
Under the new legislation, Chinese prosecutors could try suspects on the mainland — where the prosecution is virtually guaranteed to win in Communist Party-controlled courts — or before special Hong Kong tribunals without juries. Hong Kong’s Bar Association said Wednesday it was “gravely concerned” by the contents of the new law — especially the extradition provisions — as well as by its passage, which came after the measures were drafted in secret in Beijing.
China’s Foreign Ministry responded angrily Thursday to Johnson’s proposal to welcome Hong Kongers and warned Australia against moving down a “wrong path.” Britain had explicitly promised it would not offer such a deal to the city’s inhabitants — and would recognize them solely as Chinese subjects — as part of the agreement to hand over the territory in 1997, said ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
The offer would be a “breach of international law and basic norms governing international relations,” Zhao said, while also warning that China could take “countermeasures.”
It was not immediately clear whether China was threatening punitive visa measures against British citizens living in Hong Kong or considering a ban on Hong Kongers seeking to move to Britain. As rumors spread Thursday that outbound travel could be broadly restricted, the Hong Kong government issued a statement dismissing the speculation as “fake news.”
But British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged in an interview with ITV that there was little his government could do if China moved to bar Hong Kongers from flying out.
“Ultimately, we need to be honest that we wouldn’t be able to force China to allow BNOs to come to the U.K.,” Raab said, referring to the British National (Overseas) passport that roughly 350,000 Hong Kong residents obtained before 1997 when they were still colonial subjects.
Britain’s offer was striking, given that Johnson swept to power on a promise to take the country out of the European Union, gaining support from many anti-immigration voters. Yet historic ties with Hong Kong and the prospect of an influx of highly educated and entrepreneurial migrants make this a different political proposition for the government; polls show that British voters who support the proposal outnumber those opposed by roughly three to one.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said it was not a difficult political position for Western governments to take despite the high tide of anti-immigration sentiment.
“No country wants to have massive, sudden immigration,” Tsang said. “But it speaks to how [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has turned world public opinion against China.”
Tsang said he doubted that even 10 percent of the 3 million people qualified to move to Britain would consider doing so. And other than a few protest figures sought by security agencies, China would not bother with trying to bar ordinary Hong Kongers, especially malcontents, from leaving, he added.
“Most people in Hong Kong don’t want to leave,” Tsang said. “If you’re willing to see your children be given patriotic education, if you’re willing to stay at home and keep your mouth shut, if you’re willing to not speak up against the Communist Party — and most Hong Kongers do not — you’ll be okay. So we’re talking maybe tens of thousands who would want to leave, but not substantially more.”
In Hong Kong, thousands await trial for alleged offenses during the pro-democracy protests, including rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years under the new legislation.
Pro-bono groups that facilitate departures of arrested protesters by sponsoring airfares or setting them up with jobs overseas say they have been inundated with requests.
A volunteer from one of these groups said arrested protesters are now concerned that judges will be under pressure to hand down the highest sentence possible, even if the national security law is not retroactive.
“They feel very negative about their situation,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work. “Suddenly, it is like all the rules have changed.”
Most of these people, he added, were born after 1997, and therefore do not possess British National (Overseas) passports and will not be able to seek citizenship in Britain under Johnson’s proposal.
While Taiwan was a popular option for fleeing protesters last year, the volunteer said this group is looking farther afield to Europe and Australia, concerned that the Chinese Communist Party could still reach into Taiwan, a self-governed democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, and find ways to punish them there.
“Even when we ask for legal help, our lawyers say that they have never seen a law like this and cannot judge its implications,” he said. “So, our advice is that if you are arrested under a serious charge, it is best to just leave if you can.”
Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.