By The Washington Post · Gerry Shih, Shibani Mahtani
Britain, Taiwan, Australia and the United States are among those that have proposed special measures that would absorb Hong Kongers 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 on 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 dissidents and businesspeople in Hong Kong looking to emigrate. The office received 180 inquiries on its first day from Hong Kong, including many who were interested in an investment immigration program, said Chiu Chui-Cheng, the deputy head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.
Hong Kong police made 370 arrests on Wednesday as thousands of people poured onto its streets to protest the law that had come into effect at midnight. Some radical protesters fought police, blocked traffic, vandalized stores and chanted independence slogans - behavior that have all been newly defined 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 on 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 they are nearly 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 - including the extradition provisions in particular - as well as its passage, which came after the measures were drafted in secret in Beijing.
China's Foreign Ministry responded angrily on 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." "Now is not the time" to announce China's response, Zhao told reporters. "Please wait patiently."
It was not immediately clear whether China was threatening punitive visa measures against British citizens currently living in Hong Kong or mulling a ban on Hong Kongers seeking to move to Britain. The Hong Kong government issued a statement dismissing rumors that it would restrict outbound travel as "fake news."
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab acknowledged in an interview with ITV on Wednesday there was little his government could do if China tried 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.
In Washington, meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties and chambers 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 also seek permanent residency or citizenship.
The immigration proposals amount to the first major point of contention to arise 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.
In Hong Kong, thousands continue to await trial for offenses committed during the pro-democracy protests, including for rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years under the new legislation.
Pro-bono groups who 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 over 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."
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Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.