HONG KONG — Tony Chung had been planning his asylum bid for weeks. He had sent documents to Washington earlier this month, the advocacy group helping him with the process said, and he hoped he could soon resettle in the United States.
So on Tuesday, Chung and four other Hong Kong activists sought to reach the U.S. Consulate in hopes of speeding up the process, according to the London-based advocacy group Friends of Hong Kong and local media reports.
Chung, 19, was apprehended by several men and taken away before he could reach the consulate gates, a video of the incident obtained by the South China Morning Post showed. The other four — a U.S. citizen among them, according to Friends of Hong Kong — briefly entered the consulate later that afternoon, but they had their requests for refuge inside the compound rebuffed and were turned away.
Two other former members of Chung’s group, Studentlocalism, were separately arrested Tuesday.
The scenes underscored the desperation of Hong Kong protesters and activists in the city, who fear political persecution and unfair trials. It also raises questions about why the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong would have turned away an American citizen appealing for help.
The State Department “cannot comment on our communications with U.S. citizens,” said a spokesperson, citing privacy concerns. Asylum “can only be requested upon arrival in the United States,” the spokesperson added.
The United States, in very rare cases, has protected Chinese activists at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and it is also rare for the United States to grant refuge inside its other diplomatic compounds around the world.
The Hong Kong police said they had arrested three people between the ages of 19 and 21 on Tuesday, and have released two on police bail, without naming them. A 19-year-old remains in custody, police said. The Hong Kong police declined to comment further on the asylum seekers, referring The Washington Post instead to the Security Bureau, a government department.
In responses to questions from The Post, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government said it “does not comment on media reports.” The spokesman added that “people in Hong Kong are prosecuted for acts in contravention with the laws of Hong Kong regardless of their political beliefs or backgrounds.”
“There is no justification for any so-called ‘political asylum’ for people in Hong Kong,” the spokesman added.
Hong Kong officials have previously asserted there is no “political persecution” in the territory.
Friends of Hong Kong, which describes itself as defending “rights, freedom and democracy” in Hong Kong, said Chung contacted the group in October, wishing to petition the U.S. government for asylum. The group spoke to The Post on the condition that the other four who sought refuge at the consulate were not named. The Post was unable to independently contact them or Chung.
Chung was arrested in July shortly after Beijing passed a new national security law in Hong Kong, designed to put an end to the political unrest and street protests last year by punishing broadly worded crimes like “terrorism” and “secession” with up to life in prison. He and three other former members of Studentlocalism, the group he helped found, were accused of posting a message on social media that advocated for Hong Kong to be independent from China.
Chung described his arrest as politically motivated.
The other four people who attempted to enter the U.S. Consulate were not members of Studentlocalism, the group said in a social media post. According to Friends of Hong Kong, which was similarly helping them with their asylum bid, the other four had all been arrested in connection with anti-government protests in Hong Kong that began in June 2019 and all have impending court trials on a variety of charges. One among them was a U.S. citizen.
The State Department spokesperson also condemned the arrest of Chung and the other two student democracy activists, saying his detention in a coffee shop was “reprehensible.”
“The National Security Law continues to be used to stifle dissent and curtail individual freedoms of the people of Hong Kong — not to ensure security,” the spokesperson added.
The national security law, and the fear it has caused among Hong Kong activists, has prompted Western countries and Taiwan to put in place assistance programs and “lifeboat” policies for residents of the financial center hoping to flee.
Countries including Germany, Australia, the United States and Canada have recently granted asylum requests from Hong Kong residents, angering Beijing.
The United States, in particular, risks further deterioration in the relationship with China over the issue. Many activists favor asylum in the United States, perceiving the Trump administration as broadly backing the goals of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement after it signed legislation that opened the door to sanctions against those who had undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Eleven Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, were targeted in August for restricting Hong Kong’s freedoms and undermining the territory’s autonomy, and President Trump has ended the territory’s special status that allowed it to be treated separately from the Chinese mainland.
In July, the United States was forced to close its consulate in Chengdu, amid escalating U.S.-China tensions. Chinese state newspaper the Global Times in a tweet warned that the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong could face a similar fate if it were to start granting asylum to Hong Kong residents from its premises in the city. There is no indication that the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong was processing asylum requests or that it plans to offer protection for Hong Kong activists.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing has on very rare occasions shielded Chinese activists, including astrophysicist and pro-democracy advocate Fang Lizhi, who was allowed to travel to Britain in 1990 after a year at the embassy.