HONG KONG – In Western democracies, they have been welcomed as refugees escape Beijing’s tighter grip on Hong Kong.
In China, they have been convicted as violent criminals who escape punishment for their rebellious activities.
A group of Hong Kong activists who have been granted asylum in the United States, Canada and Germany in recent weeks is the latest catalyst for deteriorating relations between China and the West. Western leaders have claimed they will stand up for human rights in Hong Kong, while Chinese officials have reprimanded the countries for what they called interference in Beijing̵
The protesters’ recently granted status has made it clear how profoundly Hong Kong has changed since China introduced a harsh new security law this summer. For decades, the city had been a home for people who escaped war, famine, and political oppression on the Chinese mainland. Now the semi-autonomous city has become a source of asylum seekers.
“The United States is a country that allows us freedom,” said Vicky Xiao, a 20-year-old college student from Hong Kong who is in California seeking asylum in America.
Ms Xiao said she feared being arrested if she returned to Hong Kong because she had taken part in the demonstrations that rowed the city last year. One of her former classmates, who had also taken part in the demonstrations in Hong Kong, had been detained by police, she said.
The United States is challenging Beijing directly because of its breakdown of Hong Kong. The Trump administration moved to list refugees from the city as a priority for the first time – though it reduced the total number of refugees the United States will take in annually. At least three bills now before Congress would pass greater protection for people fleeing Hong Kong to the United States. And the government has moved unusually fast to grant asylum to at least two protesters who left Hong Kong late last year.
The two activists, who asked not to be named to protect their families in Hong Kong, showed The New York Times documents that they had been granted asylum in September. They said they had fled to the Los Angeles area after receiving several calls from an unlisted number that made them worried they were in danger of being detained.
Ms. Xiao, a university student awaiting a decision on her asylum application, is also in Southern California. She currently has a student visa and lives with her parents who have a business visa.
She described sneaking out of her parents’ house with a backpack of clothes last August and flying to Hong Kong to take part in the protests without their approval. She said she returned after three days, but has also helped organize protests in the United States, which she believes could put her at risk of being arrested if she were to return to Hong Kong after her visa expired.
“I do not know what will happen to me if I return to Hong Kong,” Ms Xiao said. “But I do not think the consequences will be good.”
China has not commented on US asylum cases. But Beijing and the Hong Kong government have rejected the idea that the city’s residents may need shelter from oppression, saying authorities guarantee the rights of its people. “There are no so-called ‘refugees’ being persecuted” in Hong Kong, “the city council said in a statement.
And officials have publicly cracked down on other countries. Hong Kong’s No. 2 leader Matthew Cheung on Wednesday summoned Germany’s Consul General to complain after Germany granted asylum to a university student wanted on a rebellion charge. Mr. Cheung said the move “would only send a blatantly wrong message to criminals.”
In Canada, China’s ambassador, Cong Peiwu, warned Ottawa against accepting refugees from Hong Kong. He said such a policy would strengthen criminals in the Chinese city and endanger the “good health and safety” of 300,000 Canadian passport holders and businesses in the area.
The ambassador’s remarks were considered by some to be a potential threat to Canadians in Hong Kong. They were also a reminder of the two Canadians who have been held for almost two years in China in retaliation for the arrest of a top executive of Huawei, the Chinese technology giant. Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne condemned the comments as “totally unacceptable and disturbing.” (The Chinese government later claimed that the comments were taken out of context.)
China’s violence against Hong Kong has prompted residents to consider their options elsewhere. Some have turned to Britain, Hong Kong’s former colonial master, who has expanded channels for the city’s residents to immigrate.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in June that the country would allow British overseas passport holders in Hong Kong to live and work in the UK for up to five years and later apply for citizenship. The residency plan is open to almost three million people in total.
China has criticized the plan. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said on Friday that Beijing was now considering not recognizing the British overseas passport as a valid travel document.
Interest in passports has grown, with the number of overseas passport holders more than doubling to over 357,000 in April from around 170,000 in 2018. Such passports, given to residents of Hong Kong before the territory was returned to China in 1997, carry insignia from the British government, but does not grant the rights of citizenship.
Derek Yeung, 60, who worked in the sale of technical products, moved to the UK in August to take advantage of the new policy. He said he had often traveled to the mainland to work and had seen corruption and abuse of power. His experience convinced him that he would eventually have to leave Hong Kong after it returned to Chinese rule.
“Because of my experience in China, I predicted that Hong Kong would soon degenerate into a police state,” he said by telephone from Cambridge. The security law introduced this summer “just confirmed my fears,” he said.
Overseas activists have also set up non-profit organizations such as Haven Assistance to help Hong Kong protesters navigate asylum procedures abroad. Popular destinations include the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Taiwan, which opened a government office to help Hong Kong asylum seekers this summer.
The group was started by Simon Cheng, who was granted political asylum in Britain in June, and other activists. Sir. Cheng says he receives 10 to 15 inquiries a day about asylum procedures in the UK alone.
“I’m safe here now, but I need to help more people,” Cheng said. “I can not be like a free rider.”
Mr. Cheng, a former employee of the British Consulate in Hong Kong, had been detained for 15 days on the Chinese mainland last year and charged with soliciting prostitution, a charge he denies. He says that while in custody, he was beaten and hanged for hours in a scattered eagle position and forced to make a videotape confession.
Sir. Cheng said that as an overseas passport holder he was eligible to stay in the UK but getting asylum would demonstrate the injustice of his experience.
“I wanted to fight for my reputation, show my detention politically motivated that it was inherent persecution,” he said.