Hong Kong citizens will be allowed to stay in the US for up to 18 months because their basic freedoms, which were guaranteed by China at the handover from Britain in 1979, are now being violated by Beijing.
President Joe Biden said on Thursday there were “compelling foreign policy reasons” to allow Hong Kong visitors to stay because China has been “undermining Hong Kong’s remaining democratic processes and institutions, imposing limits on academic freedom, and cracking down on freedom of the press”.
Since Beijing introduced a new security law for the Chinese territory which expands the definition of patriotism, making “acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion” criminal offences, many protestors and pro-democracy advocates have been arrested or fled.
Biden pointed to the arrests of hundreds of activists and opposition politicians, under the new security law.
However, Liu Pengyu, the spokesman for China’s embassy in Washington, said the US government’s actions “disregard and distort facts, and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs”.
Samuel Chu of the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, which campaigned for the move, told the BBC the group estimates that it could affect some 100,000 people.
“It is a significant number because, I think, it’s a pretty good chance that a pretty large number of visitors would benefit from this,” he said. “The situation in Hong Kong has been unfolding pretty publicly, and you’ve seen people travelling and leaving Hong Kong in droves, not just to the US but other countries.”
The US government says around 155,000 visitors arrived from Hong Kong in 2019 and 23,000 came in 2020, the reduced numbers being because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In July, the US government warned companies of the new risks of doing business in Hong Kong under the security law.
In January, London introduced a policy allowing residents of the former British colony to stay in the UK for up to five years and apply for permanent residency in response to the draconian new security law.
The British government estimates over five million Hong Kong residents are eligible and expects 300,000 people to take up the offer in the first five years.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab welcomed the US offer as a “big-hearted decision”.