“Leaving a place that I love was very difficult. We’re all Hong Kong people who come out to protest because we love Hong Kong. But now we are forced to leave.”
Jay* is a former Hong Kong resident who attended many of last year’s protests including on the frontlines. He was arrested and charged with riot offences, but fled the city when he was being released on bail several months ago. He is now among dozens of Hong Kong residents seeking political asylum in Australia. .
He has no expectation of returning home.
“When I was taking the bus to the airport and was seeing the views of Hong Kong, I thought this might be the last view of Hong Kong I get, and I’ll never come back,” he said.
Jay left his family behind. “We cried a lot,” he said of the moment he told them.
“I used to speak with [my parents] every day but now I arrange for them to contact me because I’m afraid when I call them the police will be in the house and will see I’m calling them.”
On Thursday the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced the country was immediately suspending its extradition agreement with Hong Kong, because of “the fundamental change of circumstances in relation to … the new security law”, which criminalise secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Morrison did not announce any change to Australia’s protection visa system which Jay has sought safety through. Instead he extended skilled worker and student visas – which are granted to about 4,000 Hong Kongers each year – for five years, with a pathway to permanent residency at the end of that period.
In the past, Australia has allocated portions of its humanitarian intake to one-off groups such as Syrian refugees, and it offered residency to the more than 42,000 Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
On Wednesday, an editorial in Chinese state mouthpiece, the Global Times, warned of “a huge negative impact” on Australia’s economy if the government crossed China’s “bottom line” and interfered in Hong Kong. China has also raised the prospect of banning people from leaving the city. Morrison told reporters on Thursday that he would be disappointed if that happened.
But it is near impossible for Hong Kong residents to flee to Australia for the time being.
While many other countries have entry restrictions in place to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, Australia’s are among the strictest, essentially banning the arrival of any non-resident. Canada is similar, despite seeing an increase in the number of Hong Kong people seeking asylum.
“Until the travel restrictions are lifted from Covid, I can’t imagine how someone would manage to even board a flight at this point,” Toronto immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges told Reuters last week.
The restrictions mean that while many other protesters, like Jay, might want to leave Hong Kong, for the time being they cannot.
In June 2019 more than a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against a proposed bill allowing extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland. Wary of China’s opaque justice system and persecution of dissidents, people felt the risk to democracy and activists was so great they had to march. Soon after, 2 million people – a quarter of the population – protested again.
By the end of the year the protests would be smaller but more frequent, more violent, and more desperate, but focused. The extradition bill would be withdrawn too late as the movement evolved to make five demands – “not one less”, as the slogan goes.
“A lot of the Hong Kong people, they just want a peaceful life,” says Jay. “They don’t want their life interrupted. So if the Hong Kong government had withdrawn the extradition bill early there would not be such a problem. But they didn’t, and then new issues, like police violence, and most importantly, the universal suffrage under one country two systems emerged.”
As the police crackdown intensified the protests saw increasing violence. Amid the countless acts and allegations of police brutality there have also been instances of protester violence, vandalism, and arson.
Jay doesn’t believe protesters went too far, saying police “overwhelmed” them.
“We have a large difference between us, in terms of resources, and the gap is too large. We can’t even pass by them in most protests and they hurt us a lot,” he says.
One of the five demands is for authorities to retract the accusation of “rioting” against the protesters, more than 9,000 of whom have been arrested. Such a designation carries far more serious penalties than charges relating to unlawful assembly.
The UK, which has closer diplomatic and citizenship ties with Hong Kong after more than 150 years of colonial rule, has changed its rules governing the rights of the millions of overseas British nationals in Hong Kong and freed up pathways to citizenship. The moves have angered Beijing, which has pledged countermeasures.
Pro-democracy leaders have called for solutions other than helping those with the means to flee. The UK’s offer also leaves out large groups of people, including those without British National (Overseas) (BNO) status and young adults who were born after 1997 but are too old to be classed as a dependent of their BNO parents.
The US has offered to set up Hong Kong specific refugee support, and Taiwan – which has its own fears of Beijing encroachment – has established a dedicated office assisting relocating Hongkongers.
Since Jay, who is in his 20s, left the city the situation has deteriorated. A hardline police response and then the coronavirus pandemic dampened the city’s appetite to rally in large numbers, and then last week the Chinese government imposed its draconian national security law, which outlaws sedition and secessionist acts, including things as benign as waving pro-independence flags or stocking pro-independence books.
Watching from afar, Jay describes the laws as “nonsense”.
“Because the articles are very broad, the definitions are difficult to divine, and it’s very suggestive. As long as the Hong Kong government and Beijing thinks you are violating things they can charge you.”
The Hong Kong and mainland governments say the new laws, which were introduced as a direct response to the protests, are needed to restore stability to the city and ensure the survival of the “one country two systems” principle.
Now Jay fears for his family who stayed behind and is waiting until he – hopefully – is granted asylum and can bring them here.
“I am wanted in Hong Kong. Will the Hong Kong government and central government use my family to tell me to go back to Hong Kong?” he said. “I don’t know if they’ll use my family, use their safety. It may not happen but I don’t know, so I am wary.”