A bipartisan group of US congressmen have reintroduced a bill that would grant special refugee status and visas to Hongkongers fleeing “political persecution.”

US Congress. Photo: Office of the Speaker.

In response, the government told HKFP that citizens trying to evade their liability are “cowards and a disgrace.”

The bill was previously tabled in 2020 but was struck down by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. It was revived on Tuesday by congressmen Tom Malinowski, a democrat, and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois – a republican.

During a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, the US representatives together with Samuel Chu of the Hong Kong Democracy Council announced that the bill had been reintroduced as the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act of 2021.

Once passed, it would offer Hongkongers “immediate humanitarian assistance” through two pathways to move to the US: through seeking expedited asylum if they are fleeing political persecution, or via a special visa for high net-worth individuals.

Asylum for protesters

Hong Kong residents who played a “significant role” in the 2019 anti-China extradition bill demonstrations, as well as their parents, spouses and children would be granted refugee and asylum status through an expedited process, according to the bill reviewed by HKFP.

Hong Kong protesters wave US flags at a march in opposition to totalitarianism on September 29, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

These individuals include those who took on an organising role at the protests, were a first-aid responder, journalist or member of the media covering or offering public commentary on the protests, providers of legal services to those arrested, and participants who were arrested, charged, detained, or convicted between June 9, 2019, and June 20, 2020 as a result of their roles.

Under the bill, these Hongkongers would be offered temporary protection status via an expedited route. However they will not be naturalized as US citizens after five years, as is the case for those seeking asylum under the existing system. They will instead be able to apply for citizenship through other eligible programmes, such as those through family or employment.

Citing fears of persecution under the national security law and the recent shut down of the Apple Daily newspaper after its owner and executives were arrested under the law, Malinowski said the Hong Kong security law gave “persecution the veneer of legality.”

“It’s clearly a violation of the commitments that China made to the people in Hong Kong and to the international community when sovereignty was transferred,” said the democrat. “[W]e know that there is nothing lawful about the lawlessness of the Chinese persecution in Hong Kong.”

Visas for high-skilled, high net worth

The updated bill would also provide a second category of visas to high-skilled Hongkongers who hold a graduate diploma from accredited institutions, completed undergraduate education in the US, hold over US$5 million in assets or are the sole or majority owners of a company with more than 50 direct employees.

Hongkongers entering the US through this programme would be allowed to reside and work in the country.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

In addition, the bill would designate Hong Kong as a foreign state separate from China for immigration purposes for five years, under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Hong Kong’s special status as a region autonomous from China was revoked by former president Donald Trump last year, meaning that it lost preferential treatment in areas of trade and immigration.

Chu of Hong Kong Democracy Council said the bill sought to “create as many options as possible” for Hongkongers looking to leave their native city by creating new categories of visas for them.

The US currently offers investment immigration through its EB-5 visa program to individuals who can invest a sum of US$1 million to US$1.8 million in the US — a lesser requirement than the US$5 million in assets under the proposed bill. However, Jenny Yang of World Relief – a group that supported the legislation – said Hongkongers will face less competition from those applying through other visa programmes, as they would enjoy a dedicated route of entry under the bill.

Tom Malinowski. Photo: US State Department via Flickr.

Malinowski expressed confidence that the bill will become law as it is had received support from both sides of the aisle. The previous version of the bill was also co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, he said, although it was blocked at the last moment by Cruz, who cited fears that the law could let in spies sent by the Chinese government.

Republican US Representative Kinzinger said the bill is “to say to those aspiring for freedom: we are on your side.”

Adam Kinzinger. Photo: Hudson Institute via Flickr.

“One thing that I think we all stand united for immediately is the freedom-loving people of Hong Kong,” he said.

The visa for high skilled individual, on the other hand, will send “a message to the Chinese government that they have something to lose here as well,” Malinowski said.

“If they continue to crush Hong Kong, they will inevitably lose the best and brightest people of Hong Kong — those who have driven its economic success — to the US. If that happens, China’s loss is our gain,” the Republican said.

He estimated that the bill would benefit Hongkongers “in the low thousands” once passed.

‘Strongly condemn’

In response to HKFP’s enquiry, a spokesperson from the Security Bureau said: “People who have broken the law and tried to evade their liability by making up false excuses are cowards and a disgrace.”

The government “strongly condemns any attempt seeking to evade legal liability. Persons who are wanted for prosecution of offences and have absconded from Hong Kong are fugitive offenders. The HKSAR Government will hold all fugitive offenders criminally responsible and make them face the sanctions of the law,” a statement read.

Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“We strongly object to jurisdictions harbouring criminal fugitives, and urge foreign politicians to stop interfering in the affairs of the HKSAR.”

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.