President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered authorities to refrain from deporting numerous Hong Kong residents who are in the U.S., granting them an 18-month “safe haven” in the face of China’s fierce crackdown on dissidents and democratic institutions.
In the “deferred removal” directive he signed, Biden cited the arrest of some 10,000 people in Hong Kong since Beijing imposed a so-called national security law just over a year ago that allows authorities to round up protesters and others on what the U.S. considers trumped-up charges.
Biden said the directive recognizes “the significant erosion” of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong because of the Chinese government’s actions.
The national security law has been used to curtail basic civil rights and triggered massive protests. The series of events has also harmed Hong Kong’s reputation as one of Asia’s leading vibrant financial and business centers.
“The (People’s Republic of China) has fundamentally altered the bedrock of Hong Kong’s institutions and suppressed freedoms of Hong Kongers,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a statement accompanying the president’s order. “Despite widespread demonstrations, which brought millions together to call for greater freedom, Hong Kong’s promise of democracy has dimmed.”
Both the Biden and Trump administrations have protested China’s repression of Hong Kong citizens and imposed sanctions on several Chinese leaders. But those measures have not had any effect on China’s actions, which have steadily eroded the semiautonomous structure governing Hong Kong since Britain handed the colony back to China in 1997.
It was not immediately clear how many people from Hong Kong are in the U.S. and will be spared return to their homeland under Biden’s decree. But thousands have fled the delta region in the last year.
Those who do will also be allowed to work, according to the memo signed by Biden.
Earlier this year, Britain expanded residency rights for Hong Kongers and said it expected as many as 300,000 people would avail themselves of the benefit.
Then-President George H.W. Bush took a similar action for Chinese nationals after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday, “Given the politically motivated arrests and trials, the silencing of the media, and the diminishing space for elections and democratic opposition, we will continue to take steps in support of people in Hong Kong.”
Activists involved in the Hong Kong dispute welcomed the Biden administration’s action but said it was just a start.
“This is a significant step, but it’s part of a bigger puzzle,” Samuel Chu, managing director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a Washington-based advocacy group, said in an interview. He said he hoped the administration would expand amnesty opportunities but that the temporary safe haven would allow a respite for those who want to return to Hong Kong to continue the fight.
“This opens up other tools,” Chu said.
“This is certainly a welcome move by the Biden administration,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But 18-month deferral is a temporary solution. The administration should provide pathways leading to long-term or permanent stay in the U.S. for people from Hong Kong, so they can actually exercise the freedoms and rights afforded to them by being on U.S. soil.”
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