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Biden offers Hong Kong residents in US temporary ‘safe haven’

US-China relations updates

The US is giving temporary safe haven to Hong Kong residents in the US, citing “ongoing repression” by China in the financial hub.

Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security, said the memorandum signed on Thursday by US president Joe Biden directed him to defer the removal of Hong Kong residents already present in the US by 18 months.

“Offering safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong furthers United States interests in the region,” the memorandum said.

The decision was “made based on the ongoing assault on democracy, and rights and freedoms in Hong Kong by the People’s Republic of China”, Mayorkas said in a statement on Thursday.

The department of homeland security did not say how many individuals it assessed might be eligible under the offer, but a US official told the Financial Times the number affected was “in the thousands”. The department said that residents whose removal was deferred could seek employment authorisation through US Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

“This action . . . makes clear we will not stand idly by as the PRC breaks its promises to Hong Kong and to the international community,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement on Thursday.

After being caught out by the strength of 2019 pro-democracy protests, Beijing responded to the crisis last year by enforcing a tough new national security law in the city, leading to a crackdown on political opponents, academics, civil society groups and journalists. More than 10,000 people had been arrested during the crackdown, the US state department said.

Psaki said the Biden administration had been clear that, alongside allies and partners, the US strongly opposed China’s wielding of the national security law to “deny basic rights and freedoms, assault Hong Kong’s autonomy, and undermine its remaining democratic processes and institutions”. 

“Given the politically motivated arrests and trials, the silencing of the media, and the diminishing space for elections and democratic opposition, we will continue to take steps in support of people in Hong Kong,” she added. 

Despite frequent rebukes from western countries and US sanctions targeting Hong Kong, prosecutions under the security law have continued this year. In June the government used it to charge executives and editors of jailed Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai’s pro-democracy tabloid, Apple Daily, the first time the law has been used against journalists.

The UK has offered a path to citizenship for up to 3m Hong Kong residents who hold or are eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport, a travel document Britain gave locals at the time of the 1997 handover to China. Tens of thousands have already applied, and Hong Kong airport has been full of families in recent weeks bidding goodbye to their city for a new life abroad.

Many pro-democracy activists have fled overseas, believing they would eventually be put in jail. Politicians such as Joshua Wong have been imprisoned and many others are facing legal cases.

The clampdown has also become a factor in spurring ordinary Hong Kongers to consider emigration because it has involved an overhaul of school curriculums in order to bring the education system closer to the mainland after China accused teachers of “poisoning” young minds. 

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