Joe Biden has granted temporary refuge to people from Hong Kong amid the Chinese government’s effort to crush the pro-democracy movement and tighten its control on a city once known for its freedom.
Biden signed a memorandum allowing people from Hong Kong currently residing in the United States to live and work in the country for 18 months, a move likely to further inflame the already tense relations between Washington and Beijing.
The decision to provide a temporary safe haven was taken in response to Hong Kong’s sweeping new national security law and other measures that undercut the rights promised when the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997. It also comes as China and the United States are at odds over foreign policy and trade.
“Given the politically motivated arrests and trials, the silencing of the media, and the diminishing the space for elections and democratic opposition, we will continue to take steps in support of people in Hong Kong,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
The Chinese government has sought to stifle opposition following protests in Hong Kong in 2019 against a proposed law allowing extraditions to mainland China. Under the new national security law, which took effect in June, police have arrested at least 100 opposition politicians, activists and demonstrators.
Changes have also been made to Hong Kong’s election laws to reduce the number of directly elected lawmakers and give a largely pro-Beijing committee the leeway to nominate lawmakers aligned with the mainland government.
“Despite widespread demonstrations, which brought millions together to call for greater freedom, Hong Kong’s promise of democracy has dimmed,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said as the measure granting safe haven was announced.
China bristles at the criticism, saying it is merely restoring order to the city and instituting national security protections found in other countries. It has denounced US sanctions on Hong Kong officials as interference in its domestic affairs.
Several thousand people from Hong Kong currently in the United States would be eligible to remain and avoid being deported, under what is formally known as deferred enforced departure, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Psaki didn’t rule out extending refuge beyond 18 months when asked about the possibility at a White House briefing. “Obviously, our hope and our objective and our work on the international forum is to change the behaviour that is happening and the oppression that we’re seeing of the people in Hong Kong,” she told reporters.
The deferred departure authorized by the Biden administration for people from Hong Kong exempts them from deportation except in certain circumstances, including people who voluntarily return to the city, have not continuously resided in the USor have committed a felony or two or more misdemeanors while in the country.