Biden government signs memorandum to provide haven to Hong Kong citizens, provoking Beijing.
Written by Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to escalate. White House Spokesperson Jen Psaki announced that US President Joe Biden signed a memorandum of understanding that provides temporary haven for Hong Kong citizens interested in entering US territory. Reactions to such a measure can be disastrous, as it directly hurts China’s interests.
Washington has taken a very important step in its rivalry with China by allowing Hong Kong citizens to receive “safe haven” in the US. Commenting on the case, Biden said his decision was due to possible cases of arrests for political reasons operated by the Chinese state since the implementation of the national security law in Hong Kong. These were his words: “Over the last year, the PRC has continued its assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, undermining its remaining democratic processes and institutions, imposing limits on academic freedom, and cracking down on freedom of the press”. According to Western rhetoric, virtually all of the 10,000 prisoners in Hong Kong accused of crimes against Chinese national security are innocent and are being politically prosecuted for simply criticizing Beijing. Faced with such a situation, the American actions would be a form of humanitarian aid to Hong Kong dissidents, in addition to an international repudiation act against China.
In fact, the situation of Hong Kong citizens in the US will from now on function as a temporary humanitarian protection. Currently, citizens of countries that are experiencing natural disasters and armed conflicts can temporarily stay in the US, postponing their return to their homeland until the situation stabilizes. The intent, apparently, is to make the same apply to every Hong Kong resident, considering that every citizen is supposedly suffering persecution by China (according to American speech). However, in practice, Washington’s intention is different.
What the American government is doing, more than a mere reprisal to China, is an encouragement to mass emigration. The US is developing a way to accelerate a process of population depletion of Hong Kong by offering benefits for living abroad. In a public statement on the case, US Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said: “Hong Kong residents in the United States whose removal has also been deferred may also seek employment authorization through US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The United States stands with the people of Hong Kong in support of rights and freedoms”. With the mass emigration growing, Beijing will be forced to create measures to reverse this process, trying to change the migration cycle – and among such changes there could be, perhaps, the end of the national security law (which interests the entire West).
The American measure is not the first one with this emigration aim. In July of last year, the British government authorized the delivery of the British National Overseas Passport to all Hong Kong citizens. This document allows its owners to enter and leave the UK freely, without a visa, as well as being a basic step towards acquiring British citizenship (which is possible from one year onwards with the passport). At that time, this law emerged as an immediate response to the ratification of the national security law in Hong Kong and was the first move towards global encouragement of mass emigration. Certainly, after the UK and the US, it will be the time of European Union countries to take decisions in this direction and then we will have a really global tendency.
However, the Western bet on encouraging emigration continues to seem like a big strategic mistake. Such an attitude would have greater strategic value if the opportunities offered by the West to new refugees were abundant, which is not true. With societies increasingly affected by unemployment, poverty, and diverse social problems, many of them associated with mass immigration, in addition to the growth of xenophobic and ultranationalist tendencies (with an emphasis on the strong sinophobia of American society), it seems too optimistic to think that many citizens of Hong Kong will seek to leave their homeland. Rather than mass emigration, the policy will likely result in a mere displacement of dissidents and political criminals, which possibly even benefits Beijing (given that these dissidents will have little real political power abroad). Also, China could simply stop the flow of people, closing airports and making Hong Kong a completely isolated territory.
Chinese responses are likely to be limited to notes of repudiation, however, the precedent of encouraging mass emigration cannot be ignored. If this dangerous strategy becomes a common practice on the international arena, we will have a chaotic scenario, with countries considering all citizens of their geopolitical rivals as refugees. It is necessary for the United Nations to act with promptness, condemning governments that consider mere migrants or common criminals to be refugees only for geopolitical interests, as this can bring enormous global legal insecurity.
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