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Hong Kongers brace for expiry of Biden’s deportation protection directive

By PHELIM KINE January 12, 2023

Protesters light up their mobile phones while chanting slogans and singing songs in the Mong Kok district during a pro-democracy protests on June 12, 2020, in Hong Kong, China. | Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Hi, China Watchers. This week we measure the anxiety of Hong Kong citizens in the U.S. as Biden administration protection from their deportation is set to expire. We’ll also examine Chinese wolf warrior diplomat Zhao Lijian’s sudden job change and parse the Chinese government’s increasingly twisted propaganda narrative on its Covid outbreak. And we profile a book that argues that the classic tool of international human rights advocacy – naming and shaming – usually backfires in China.

Let’s get to it. — Phelim

A presidential directive that protects Hong Kong citizens in the U.S. from deportation back to the territory will lapse in 24 days.

The Biden administration issued that directive — the Deferred Enforced Departure for Certain Hong Kong Citizens — on Aug. 5, 2021, due to concerns about “the significant erosion of those rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.” It granted Hong Kong citizens present in the U.S. on that date the right to live and work in the U.S. for 18 months.

But as the clock ticks down to D.E.D.’s Feb. 5 expiry, both lawmakers and Hong Kongers who have benefited from the program worry that the administration may not extend it. And that may force Hong Kongers to return home to official reprisals — including prosecution and imprisonment — for activities that authorities allege violate the territory’s dangerously ambiguous National Security Law.

“Going back to Hong Kong isn’t an option for me — I would probably be arrested and be sent to prison,” said HUEN LAM, the senior communications associate at the nonprofit Hong Kong Democracy Council.

Lam said her participation in pro-democracy protests and her work as a campaigner for a pro-democracy politician in 2020 – which she said put her under police surveillance for months — make a return to Hong Kong an unacceptable risk. Hong Kongers in the U.S. share “the same mindset — we've got fingers crossed and hope that D.E.D. gets extended,” she said.

Lam is not alone among the 3,860 Hong Kong citizens eligible for D.E.D. protection back in August 2021 who fear the consequences of its expiry. China Watcher spoke to seven Hong Kongers living in the U.S. who say that their participation in pro-democracy activities and protests either in Hong Kong or here in the U.S. could put them behind bars if they lose D.E.D. protection. Five requested anonymity to avoid exposing themselves or their families back in Hong Kong to possible reprisals from Hong Kong authorities.

LANCE CHAN — who is studying to become an airline pilot — served as a volunteer medic during the often-violent pro-democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong in 2019. He has applied for political asylum due to his fear that his protest history might lead to his arrest in Hong Kong and calls D.E.D. a “safety net” to prevent deportation. “If in the worst-case scenario, I’m not granted asylum, D.E.D. can still let me stay in the U.S.,” Chan said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which implements D.E.D., issued an alert last week telling Hong Kongers to stand by for “additional guidance” on their D.E.D. status. The White House didn't respond to a request for comment. The Chinese government sees D.E.D – and its possible extension — as a sovereignty-busting conspiracy.

"The U.S. provided so-called 'safe haven' for anti-China insurgents fleeing overseas under the pretext of democracy and human rights, further exposing its sinister intention to jeopardize the peace of Hong Kong and to use the 'Hong Kong card' to contain China's development," said Chinese embassy spokesperson LIU PENGYU in a statement.

Democratic lawmakers say they’re determined to protect Hong Kongers from losing D.E.D. protection. “We can’t in good conscience deport individuals back to a repressive government,” said Sen. JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the Congressional Executive Committee on China. Merkley wants the administration to do “everything in our power” to protect vulnerable Hong Kongers in the U.S., starting with an extension of D.E.D.

Hong Kong has become synonymous with repression over the past three years as government authorities have launched a prolonged crackdown to silence democracy activists and muzzle media. Police enforcement of the National Security Law has led to the arrests of more than 160 people since June 2020 — for crimes including organizing informal public opinion polls — and the closure of over 150 civil society organizations. Lawyers who represent victims of human rights abuses are fleeing the territory in the face of threats and intimidation.

Hong Kongers who participate in activities overseas that Hong Kong authorities consider subversive are equally at risk. Hong Kong police briefly detained a Hong Kong citizen last year on the basis of photographs of him speaking at pro-democracy events in the United Kingdom, the Financial Times reported last week. He fled the territory fearing imminent arrest.

JASON (not his real name) has benefited from D.E.D. since graduating from university in the U.S. in 2021. He has carved out a career as an election campaign worker and worries that experience might be viewed with suspicion by Hong Kong authorities. “The arbitrariness of the National Security Law means there's no way to tell whether what you have done might be something that in their mind is something that threatens national security,” he said.

Some Hong Kong students in the U.S. are already counting on an indefinitely extended D.E.D. as a way to avoid returning home after they graduate and their student visas expire.

BENNETT (not his real name), a university student in Washington, D.C., worries that his involvement with an on-campus Hong Kong pro-democracy group will red-flag him to authorities. And he’s taking precautions to evade scrutiny of Hong Kong authorities. “On social media we avoid posting photos or videos with people's faces – we blur them out,” said Bennett.

Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN warned of “an erosion of autonomy and dismantling of the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents over the last two years” in a statement published in June. Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates in the U.S. want Biden to back that rhetoric with long-term protection for Hong Kongers who have sought refuge in the U.S. A coalition of 47 such groups sent an open letter to the administration last month urging it to extend D.E.D. for another 18 months and “expand its scope” to include Hong Kongers who have arrived in the U.S. since the original Aug. 5, 2021, cut-off.

Bipartisan legislative initiatives in recent years to make Hong Kongers eligible for Priority 2 refugee admission status — including the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act — haven’t succeeded. But U.S.-based Hong Kong pro-democracy activists are seeking congressional support to grant Temporary Protected Status to Hong Kongers to eliminate the uncertainty of D.E.D. extensions.

“TPS gives people an additional layer of standing in the US immigration system — D.E.D. is just a last resort against immediate deportation,” said SAMUEL CHU, president of the nonprofit The Campaign for Hong Kong. Chu sees “real appetite” on Capitol Hill to deliver a longer-term solution for Hong Kongers seeking to remain in the U.S.

"The Biden administration should take steps to ensure that individuals, particularly those who face fear of reprisal, including through prosecution, for their commitment to Hong Kong’s democracy, are not forced to return under these circumstances,”Sen. ROBERT MENENDEZ, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.


—U.S., JAPAN DEEPEN JOINT DEFENSE TIES: The U.S. will station an upgraded Marine Corps unit with the ability to fire anti-ship missiles in Okinawa, Japan, in a move aimed at deterring China, top U.S. and Japanese officials announced on Wednesday. The deployment sends a strong signal to China that the U.S. can quickly defend Japan, and the new unit will be able to rapidly respond to contingencies, Defense Department officials said.

Read my and POLITICO's LARA SELIGMAN's full story here.

— HOUSE GREEN-LIGHTS CHINA SELECT COMMITTEE: The House voted to establish a select committee to assess the myriad military, economic and technological challenges posed by China — kicking off an effort that was a major pillar of the Republican national security agenda, POLITICO’s CONNOR O’BRIEN and GAVIN BADE reported on Tuesday. Lawmakers voted 365-65 to set up the panel, which will be chaired by Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.). The committee should view U.S.-China relations in an “objective and reasonable light,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson WANG WENBIN said on Wednesday.

Read my full story on Gallagher’s China Select Committee priorities here.

— SMITHSONIAN CUTS TIES WITH HK OFFICE: The Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art has cut ties with the Hong Kong government's representative office in Washington, D.C. in response to pressure from pro-democracy activists. They claim that official Hong Kong tourism, business and cultural outreach is propaganda for a repressive regime. In a letter sent to activists Tuesday and shared with China Watcher, the museum said it had informed the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office that "we would not be seeking their support" in the future. That decision follows a months-long campaign to prod the museum to cancel the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office’s sponsorship of the museum’s annual Hong Kong Film Festival. "We further call on all U.S. institutions, both public and private, to cease and refrain from any relations with the HKETO and Chinese Embassy," a coalition of 20 U.S.-based Hong Kong pro-democracy groups said in an open letter published today.

Prime Minister, Rishi Sunk with the Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida at the Tower of London where they signed a UK-Japan defense agreement on Jan. 11 in London. | Richard Pohle/Getty Images

— U.K.-JAPAN DEFENSE DEAL EYES CHINA: Japan and the United Kingdom have signed a mutual defense agreement implicitly aimed to counter China's growing military heft. The agreement enables the two countries "to deploy forces in one another's countries … allowing both forces to plan and deliver larger scale, more complex military exercises and deployments," said a U.K. government statement published Wednesday.

— CHINA RESTRICTS VISAS FOR JAPANESE, SOUTH KOREANS: Beijing retaliated Monday against countries that have imposed entry restrictions — including mandatory pre-arrival negative Covid tests — on Chinese travelers. The Chinese government stopped issuing tourist visas to South Korean and Japanese citizens on Monday after Seoul did likewise due to concerns about China’s widening Covid outbreak. Japan has imposed a mandatory negative Covid test for inbound Chinese travelers. Beijing perceives such measures as a “pretext for political manipulation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson WANG WENBIN said on Tuesday.

— FM QIN GANG GOES TO AFRICA: QIN GANG left for Africa on Monday on his first overseas trip as Foreign Minister just a week after departing the U.S. following the end of his term as ambassador. Qin’s itinerary includes Egypt, Benin, Angola and Ethiopia. Qin’s trip “speaks volumes about the high importance China attaches to growing its traditional friendly relations with Africa,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang said on Wednesday. The Biden administration is scrambling to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region.


Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian gestures during a news conference in Beijing on July 27, 2022. | Liu Zheng/AP Photo

— WOLF WARRIOR ZHAO HOWLS NO MORE: Chinese Foreign Minister Qin signaled a possible softening in the ministry’s pugnacious “wolf warrior” diplomacy by banishing Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN to the bureaucratic backwater of the ministry's Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs on Monday. “Comrade Zhao has been appointed to a new post as work requires,” Wang at the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday.

Zhao embraced a bare-knuckle style of diplomacy that included a notorious Twitter spat with former national security adviser SUSAN RICE in 2019. Rice called him “a racist disgrace” for comparing China’s abuses of its Uyghur population to race relations in the U.S. In a tweet response he later deleted, Zhao shot back that Rice was “a disgrace, too. And shockingly ignorant.” Chinese state-backed Global Times newspaper lionized Zhao in 2020 as a diplomat who used Twitter “to defend China and hit back against unwarranted criticisms from the U.S.-led West.”

Zhao led the Foreign Ministry’s defense of China’s transparency failures on Covid origins by tweeting in April 2020 that “it might be U.S. army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.” And he batted back criticisms of China’s alignment with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by falsely accusing Kiev of hosting U.S. bioweapons labs.

Zhao’s reassignment isn’t necessarily a demotion – the Chinese newsmagazine Caixin reported that his rank is unchanged. “Qin Gang’s new tenure probably prompted this shift,” said DAN CHEN, assistant professor of political science at the University of Richmond and an expert on the role of the media in authoritarian politics and governance. “Qin Gang’s public communication style has been fairly personable, including his departing op-ed in the Washington Post and his short statement in Chinese for Chinese audiences [and] seems incompatible with wolf warriors.”

— CHINA’S FOREIGN MINISTRY COVID BLAME GAME: The Chinese government is worried about Covid … in the U.S. That’s the Chinese propaganda pushback against international concerns about Beijing’s lack of transparency about its widening outbreak. It’s a tough sell given anecdotal reports of China’s spiraling death toll, crematoriums overwhelmed with corpses and a stressed health care system.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson MAO NING spent last week insisting “the COVID situation in China is under control." HU XIJIN, a nationalist firebrand and government-backed Twitter agitator trialed a diversionary official narrative fingering the U.S. as a contagion source. “Chinese people are now particularly worried that the U.S.’ XBB.1.5 variant will be introduced into China, causing a new wave of epidemic,” Hu tweeted. China's assistant minister of Foreign Affairs, HUA CHUNYING, lent a hand by reviving the now-debunked conspiracy theory about Covid emerging from the U.S. military’s Fort Detrick in a tweet last week.

Spokesperson Wang accused the U.S. of having “more Covid variants than others" on Monday. He salted that slur by accusing the U.S. government of a lack of transparency in its Covid reporting. “This is a typical obfuscation strategy when [China] is facing criticisms from the U.S.,” said YANZHONG HUANG, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They recycle [this narrative] to reinforce the thinking among the public that … we are facing this unbridled spread of the virus thanks to the Americans.”

— JACK MA TECH TITAN TURNS TAIL: The billionaire founder of Chinese technology giant Alibaba Group, JACK MA, confirmed a stunning fall from government grace by announcing on Saturday that he would yield control of the firm. Ma was a symbol of the power and success of China’s once-burgeoning tech sector with an estimated net worth of $41 billion in 2019. He made the mistake of criticizing the ruling Chinese Communist Party financial regulatory practices in a speech in 2020.

Ma then disappeared from public view for two months leading to speculation that police had placed him under house arrest. Chinese regulators also canceled Ant Group’s long-anticipated public stock listing. Those were the opening shots in Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping’s campaign to curb the influence of China’s tech firms and to milk their coffers to fund his signature “common prosperity” program geared to reduce China’s wealth gap. Xi’s war on China’s tech barons reflects his fear that “they threaten the primacy of the Communist Party,” said ANDREW KEMP COLLIER, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Global Source Partners and author of China's Technology War: Why Beijing Took Down Its Tech Giants.

That crackdown is now “basically” finished, the deputy governor of China’s central bank, GUO SHUQING, said on Saturday. But it may be too late. “China is encouraging ‘hard tech’ like semiconductors with state money, much of which is lost through bad investments … but the tech service sector is being brought to heel under the control of the state and will no longer be a dynamic center of growth,” Collier said.



— CHINA’S AVIATION REGULATOR PREDICTS TRAVEL REBOUND: The Chinese government’s move to ease inbound and outbound travel restrictions linked to the now-defunct zero-Covid policy is apparently good news for China’s airline industry. The country’s aviation regulator predicted Friday that the air traffic would rebound to 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels in 2023.

Oxford University Press

The Book: Hostile Forces: How the Chinese Communist Party Resists International Pressure on Human Rights

The Author: JAMIE GRUFFYDD-JONES is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What is the most important takeaway from your book?

Publicly criticizing countries over their human rights may well backfire. ‘Naming and shaming’ is something we think of as one of the international community’s most effective — and most common — tools for improving human rights. But in China, heavy-handed condemnation from the West has often been enthusiastically seized upon by the Communist Party and, perversely, has increased public support for its policies toward human rights.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?

Just how openly Chinese state media has talked about foreign — or at least Western — criticism of sensitive human rights issues in the country, even when that criticism could quite easily be censored. Even going back to the 1950s, we see high-profile newspaper stories detailing obscure American concerns about serious human rights violations, violations that most of the public would certainly not have known about otherwise.

What does your book tell us about the trajectory and future of U.S.-China relations?

American pressure over human rights — or over any other issues — in China will be most effective if the overall U.S.-China relationship is positive and cooperative. This is not the way the relationship is going. Especially with a Republican-led House, it looks like human rights issues will be more and more central to U.S.-China relations, while those relations themselves become more and more confrontational. This means that, by itself, any public American criticism of China will be increasingly likely to backfire.


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