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Australia offers pathway to residency for Hongkongers

Australia vs China. Illustration: Liu Rui/Global Times. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

CANBERRA, Jul 9, 2020, SCMP. Australia will suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and give Hongkongers on temporary visas a pathway to permanent residency in response to the city’s controversial national security law, in a move welcomed by activists but likely to exacerbate tensions with Beijing, South China Morning Post reported.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday said the national security law constituted “a fundamental change of circumstances in respect to our extradition agreement with Hong Kong” and Australia had “formally notified Hong Kong and advised the Chinese authorities” of the decision.

The suspension of the treaty follows a similar move by Canada last week.

Morrison also said about 10,000 Hongkongers on student and other temporary visas will be able to stay in the country following the passage of the law that critics say drastically curtails the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” framework governing Hong Kong.

“There will be citizens of Hong Kong who may be looking to move elsewhere, to start a new life somewhere else, to take their skills, their businesses and things that they have been running under the previous set of rules and arrangements in Hong Kong, and seek that opportunity elsewhere,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. “Australia has always been a very welcoming country to such people from all around the world.”

The move is Australia’s most significant immigration offer on humanitarian grounds related to China since former prime minister Bob Hawke’s decision to allow 27,000 Chinese students stay in the country following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Morrison said the government would not open a new humanitarian intake for Hongkongers currently outside Australia but instead offer incentives to Hong Kong businesses to relocate and give special consideration to Hongkongers eligible for the Global Talent Scheme Visa.

The 2016 census recorded nearly 87,000 Hong Kong-born people in Australia. Hong Kong, which is home to some 100,000 Australians, was Australia’s 12th-largest trading partner in 2018, with two-way trade valued at A$17.8 billion (US$9.8 billion), according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The announcement came just minutes after Canberra updated its travel advice for the city to warn its citizens they “may be at increased risk of detention on vaguely defined national security grounds”.

Chengxin Pan, a professor of international relations at Deakin University, said Canberra’s “political gesture” would undoubtedly exacerbate tensions.

“You may call it part of ‘virtue signalling diplomacy’ on Australia’s part, which could at once help to reaffirm Australia’s self-image as a middle power standing up for human rights and liberal democratic values, and to double down on its ongoing diplomatic spat with China,” he said.

On Wednesday, the Chinese nationalist Global Times tabloid warned in an editorial that “political provocations over the Hong Kong issue” would end up being a “bitter pill” for Australia’s economy.

Alex, a Hongkonger studying at the University of South Australia, welcomed the option to stay in Australia, saying he was afraid of being arrested for supporting the anti-government protest movement in Hong Kong, as the new law claims jurisdiction over people outside the territory.

“I think it is a very good opportunity for Hongkongers to start a new life,” said the student, who asked his surname be withheld. “I am extremely worried as I was quite active in supporting Hong Kong democracy.”

Australia’s economy, which this year entered its first recession for 30 years due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, has long been sustained by steady immigration. In 2016, just under half of all Australians were either born overseas or had a parent who was.

Skills-based immigration helped fill roles in industries experiencing high demand, offsetting the country’s ageing workforce. Population increases delivered about 1.5 percentage points to annual GDP growth, allowing the economy to defy the business cycle.

However, the economic impact of the pandemic has led to an expected downturn in arrivals – as much as 85 per cent this financial year.

Jocelyn Chey, a visiting professor at the University of Sydney, said although Australia had strong links to Hong Kong and a large Hong Kong expat community, she expected initial uptake of the resettlement scheme to be modest.

“Australia is going through a difficult time because of the pandemic and its effect on the economy,” Chey said. “Hongkongers know this and also know the relative costs and opportunity limitations of moving here. I would expect China and the East Asian region to recover from the current downturn before the rest of the world and I think many Hongkongers would share this view.”

Pan said it was also possible Hongkongers could face prejudice in Australia, reflected by a series of racist attacks on Asians since the start of the pandemic.

“If there was a large number of migrants from Hong Kong over a short period, it could spark some backlash among locals,” Pan said.

“It might be possible, for example, that some Hongkongers could be blamed for certain social economic woes in Australia – such as driving up house prices – in a post-Covid-19 period. But they’re most likely to be lumped together with other Chinese and Asian people amid rising anti-Chinese and Asian sentiment, rather than being singled out as Hongkongers.”

Australia’s offer is bound to further unsettle Canberra’s relations with Beijing, already strained by disputes encompassing trade, allegations of espionage, racist incidents targeting Asians in Australia, and the South China Sea.

China last month warned its citizens, particularly students, against travelling to Australia, citing “multiple discriminatory incidents against Asians in Australia”, including people being bullied for wearing a face mask, spat at and harassed in public, and racist language written across cars and private property.

“The Ministry of Education reminds overseas students to conduct proper risk assessments, and at this time take caution in choosing to go to Australia or return to Australia for their studies,” the Minister of Education said.

The Australian government rejected the claims of endemic racism, in turn accusing China of “economic coercion” in response to Australia’s support for an independent inquiry into the origin of the coronavirus.

Beijing has also warned Canberra against going “down the wrong path” after threatening to take “countermeasures” against Britain if it followed through with its offer of a pathway to citizenship to some 3 million residents eligible for British National (Overseas) passports.

Hong Kong authorities have so far arrested 10 people under the new law, including a 15-year-old girl accused by police of displaying a flag advocating Hong Kong independence during last week’s protests against the legislation.

The law, which prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, has been criticised by rights activists and legal experts in Hong Kong and overseas, including the UN human rights office, which has expressed concern over its “vague and overly broad” provisions.

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