China “continued its attacks on Hong Kong autonomy, undermining its remaining democratic processes and institutions, placing limits on academic freedom and cracking down on press freedom,” President Joe Biden said in a note on Thursday. the new policy.
“Providing safe haven for Hong Kong residents who have been deprived of their guaranteed freedoms in Hong Kong serves the interests of the United States in the region,” Biden said.
The vast majority of the thousands of Hong Kong people currently in the United States are eligible for the program, a senior administration official told Reuters news agency. Legal conditions apply, such as those who have not been convicted of serious crimes.
The “safe haven” action is the latest move by the Biden administration to tackle the erosion of free speech and democratic rights in the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997.
At the time, Beijing pledged to abide by Hong Kong’s democratic system of governance on the “one country, two systems” principle for at least 50 years. The rights and freedoms of the territory were enshrined in its mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.
“Today, we are sending a clear message that the United States stands firmly in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
In June 2020, following massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests the previous year, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law punishing activities labeled as subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession up to life imprisonment.
While authorities have said the law is only likely to be used against a small number of people, politicians and activists critical of Beijing have been targeted and the Apple Daily, a staunch pro -democracy, has been closed. Amnesty said in a report in June that the law was being used to decimate Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Amid the crackdown, nearly 50,000 Hong Kong citizens are said to have left the territory to rebuild their lives elsewhere, including the UK which opened its doors and offered a path to citizenship for potentially three million Hong Kong people. Canada and Australia have also taken steps to facilitate the migration of Hong Kong people or their application for permanent residence.
“The PRC has fundamentally changed the foundation of Hong Kong institutions and taken away freedoms from Hong Kong people,” Blinken said.
Following the announcement, China said the US characterization of the situation in Hong Kong “confuses black and white,” and that the security law has created a more secure environment that has protected human freedoms.
“Such movements despise and distort the facts, and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in Hong Kong said the offer was an attempt “to denigrate Hong Kong, smear China and engage in actions aimed at destroying the city’s prosperity and stability.” .
Activists, meanwhile, praised the US move.
“The announcement recognizes the deteriorating human rights situation in Hong Kong, and it is in the interest of all democratic governments to do everything possible to support Hong Kong people deprived of their fundamental freedoms,” said Benedict Rogers, CEO of Hong Kong Watch. , said in a statement.
Samuel Chu, chief executive of the Washington-based human rights group, Hong Kong Democracy Council, said that even with limited data, tens of thousands of people could be eligible for the program, including thousands with student visas. He said the will of many to return to Hong Kong was strong, but it could take more than an 18-month cycle.
“The overwhelming desire of the Hong Kong people is to keep fighting to restore their autonomy and freedoms,” Chu said.
In July, the United States imposed more sanctions on Chinese officials in Hong Kong and issued an update warning companies of the risks of operating under the National Security Act.
China has responded to US actions with its own sanctions against American individuals, including former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
U.S. lawmakers in Congress have proposed legislation that would allow people in Hong Kong fearing persecution to join protests against China for U.S. refugee status.