Hong Kong National Security Law
Protest slogan in Hong Kong (Photo: Unsplash)

Hong Kongers look to Australia for a safe haven

“I don’t want to live like a criminal, because I’m not a criminal,” one pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong tells Hatch.

“I’m scared that if I stay, I could be jailed for life.”

Like many in the Chinese territory, the 20-year-old student – who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals – is contemplating fleeing. And his preferred destination is Australia, where he has distant relatives.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced yesterday (9 July) that 10,000 Hong Kong students and residents currently in Australia will have their visas extended for five years, with a pathway for them to permanent residency.

Although he did not offer to resettle people living in Hong Kong, as has the UK, China reacted angrily to Morrison’s announcement, accusing Australia of “meddling in .. China’s internal affairs”.

Hong Kong extradition bill protest
Protests rocked Hong Kong last year. (Photo: Joseph Chan)

Many in Hong Kong are deeply concerned about Beijing’s new national security law, which came into force last week. It outlaws any act of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, punishable by life in prison.

Critics say it effectively curbs protests and freedom of speech. Many expect it to provoke a mass exodus.

A survey by Foreign Policy magazine found that Australia was the third most popular destination for Hong Kong people, after Taiwan and Canada.

“I have family in Australia, so it’s my obvious first choice,” says the student..

At present, international travel restrictions would make it difficult for Hong Kongers to move to Australia, if immigration rules permitted it.

Dr Pichamon Yeophantong, a China expert at UNSW Canberra, thinks Hong Kong people will adopt a “wait and see” attitude.

“Hong Kongers seeking to relocate to Australia won’t be able to do so at the moment and, presumably, for as long as travel restrictions remain in place and prospects of a second wave [of coronavirus] happening in other Australian cities remain high,” she says.

Some already left the territory last year, during the mass protests against the proposed new law, fearing a rapid escalation of Chinese influence.

One of them is a marketing analyst, who reunited with family in Sydney last October, hoping to provide a freer future for his children.

Hong Kong's scenery
The marketing analyst’s final photo of his beloved Hong Kong (Photo: supplied)

The 44-year-old, who also asked not to be identified, tells Hatch that he expects many others to follow him.

“The Communist government is forcing us all to flee.”

Hong Kong marketing analyst

He calls the national security law a “nail in the coffin”.

“The Communist government is forcing us all to flee,” he says. “We love this land, yet we have to abandon and flee, soon or later.”

Dr Yeophantong says: “If Chinese history has taught us anything, it’s that sovereignty issues are of utmost importance to Beijing and are non-negotiable.”

However, Nathan Attrill, a PhD candidate in the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, believes that not everyone in the Chinese Communist Party may be against mass emigration.

“There may be part of the Chinese and Hong Kong leadership quite happy to see activists leave Hong Kong and go elsewhere, even if they continue to cry ‘interference in internal affairs’,” he says.