Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 17 December 2021

 Hong Kong’s freedom fighters need our help

Activist Nathan Law at a demonstration July 1 in Hong Kong. (Belinda Jiao/SOPA Images/Lightrocket/Getty Images)
Opinion by Josh Rogin
December 17 at 7:38 am Taiwan Time
Two years after Hong Kong’s students led millions of people into the streets to protest for democracy and freedom, the crisis there seems to have disappeared from Western headlines and Western government agendas. But for thousands of young Hong Kongers, now fleeing or in exile, the fight for Hong Kong’s future (and their own) is just beginning. They need our help, now more than ever.
China’s leaders might think they have succeeded in crushing the spirit of Hong Kong, once considered the freest city in Asia, but they would be wrong. Beijing has used its national security law to destroy freedom of speech, the free press, rule of law and civil society for millions still living there. But thousands are escaping due to fear of arrest or persecution. Those who have successfully made it to the West are regrouping and building the infrastructure of the world’s newest exile movement.
“For me, democratic backsliding is not an abstract theory, but a personal and painful story,” former student leader and Hong Kong legislator Nathan Law said during President Biden’s Summit for Democracy last week. “Unfortunately, the free world lacks a determination to coordinate a pushback. … We must change. We must act to show we can do better.”
Now living in exile in the United Kingdom, Law, 28, cut ties with his family in Hong Kong to protect them. Trumped-up charges from Hong Kong authorities may prevent him from ever returning home. But he is among the lucky ones. Many of Law’s freedom-fighting friends are behind bars, including fellow student activist Joshua Wong and newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai.
Meanwhile, thousands of young protesters who took to the streets to demand their promised rights have no clear pathway to safety. Stuck in legal and physical limbo, they are appealing for refuge to the same democratic governments that encouraged them to rise up in 2019.
Sunny Cheung, a 25-year-old former student activist leader, is now living in exile in the D.C. region and applying for political asylum. He told me that most of the student protesters can’t even submit an application for asylum or refugee status. Their anonymity protected them on the streets, but it now works against them in the eyes of the U.S. asylum system.
“It’s really hard for them to prove they are in danger of being arrested when seeking asylum, because it is a faceless movement,” said Cheung, who advises the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a D.C.-based pro-democracy nonprofit organization. “Ironically, they are the heroes. They have really sacrificed a lot.”
Thousands of former protesters are stranded in Taiwan. Increasingly desperate, some have fallen victim to human traffickers. The protesters were almost all young adults or teenagers, meaning most are too young to qualify for the U.K.’s established pathway to citizenship. Out of 10,000 people arrested in protests as of last October, around 2,000 were in primary or secondary school, according to a report by the U.K.-based nonprofit organization Hong Kong Watch.
Joey Siu, a 22-year-old Hong Kong democracy activist and student leader, told me the United States is lagging behind Britain, Australia and Canada, all of which have instituted “lifeboat policies” to respond to the crisis. The Biden administration in August offered temporary “safe haven” to Hong Kongers already in the United States. But what about the rest?
“We're not doing enough to save all these freedom fighters in Hong Kong,” she said. “For all those protesters in Hong Kong who have been sacrificing their futures, we must fulfill our responsibility and lead by example.”
Hong Kong Watch is calling on Congress to pass the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, a bipartisan bill led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that would enable Hong Kongers to apply for refugee status from outside the United States. In the House, there is the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act, sponsored by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), which would also expand visas for skilled workers from Hong Kong.
“That’s what says to the Chinese, ‘If you crush Hong Kong, you will lose your best and your brightest to us,’” Malinowski told me. “These are amazing people who will make huge contributions to the United States, just as so many refugees from the Soviet Union did during the Cold War.”
This week, House Democrats and Senate Republicans came together to negotiate over a bill to prevent Uyghur forced labor products from entering the United States. They then passed it unanimously. This shows how much support for human rights remains in Congress — and how much can get done when our leaders cut the political and bureaucratic nonsense.
Once people have experienced freedom, they will never tolerate having it stolen from them. These young Hong Kongers believed us when we told them they deserved these rights. They have sacrificed too much to stop now. Their struggle could last decades. We must show them they are not fighting alone.

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