Hong kong protests people's liberation army police violence
Protesters clash with police in Hong Kong, 2019 (Image: AP/Vincent Yu)

The decision the Morrison government must take soon on how it responds to the Chinese regime’s crackdown on Hong Kong is not uncomplicated, but should be fairly clear. For moral, economic, foreign policy and political reasons, Australia must follow the UK in offering some form of sanctuary to large numbers of Hong Kong citizens.

The first step should be granting extensions to the temporary visas of all ~17,000 Hong Kong residents currently in Australia if they do not wish to return. As Labor says, no one should be deported to Hong Kong now.

Beyond that, Australia needs to determine how, and how many, Hong Kong residents who wish to escape the clutches of Beijing should be permitted to come here.

A Chinese University survey last year, as protests roiled Hong Kong, found around 40% of the city’s 7.4 million people would emigrate if they had the chance.

The UK has now offered around 3 million Hong Kong residents born prior to the handover to China residency in the UK — a significant expansion of UK immigration rights. But those born after 1997 — which includes the core of the current protest movement — don’t benefit from that. That may be where Australia should focus its efforts.

There’s already a large Hong Kong diaspora in Australia, concentrated in Sydney: around 90,000 Hong Kong-born people resided in Australia in 2016, about half in NSW.

What makes it easier for the government is that there could literally be no better time to invite large numbers of people to move to Australia from a territory being crushed by China. Indeed, given the government’s rhetoric about China, to do anything other than offer sanctuary would open Scott Morrison to a charge of hypocrisy.

With Australia’s permanent and temporary immigration programs frozen due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our dependence on migration to prop up the economy with demand for infrastructure and housing has left us in a deep hole. There’ll be no 160,000 skilled and family visa arrivals this year, and no hundreds of thousands of foreign students and temporary workers.

The construction sector is the primary victim, and is already undergoing a major downturn, but the impacts of virtually zero immigration will ripple out across the economy. The crisis in Hong Kong coincides with Australia, in effect, requiring its entire migration program to be filled. And Hong Kong has handled the pandemic far better than Australia, with just seven deaths and 1200 infections in total.

Other economic benefits are also apparent: by targeting younger Hongkongers, Australia would be inviting young, well-educated migrants, but the Hong Kong population has a higher level of tertiary education overall than Australia anyway; the local Hong Kong diaspora already here is better educated, better skilled and has a higher participation rate than locally-born Australians.

By declaring its willingness to offer Hongkongers sanctuary from a monstrous regime, Australia would inevitably infuriate China, but relations with Beijing are already at a long-term low due to the latter’s increased aggression, Australia’s pushback against Chinese interference and the COVID-19 inquiry issue.

With no prospect of an improvement in relations with China unless Australia complies with the wishes of local China Lobby voices and bends the knee to Beijing, there is less downside than usual in further upsetting a regime permanently poised to take offence at the most trivial slight.

Australia could do little if China decided to prevent Hongkongers from leaving, but such an act would, more than anything else, signal the failure of a political model touted as superior to the lazy democracies of the West. When a regime has to imprison its own population — which Beijing is already doing to the Xinjiang Uyghurs in a slow-motion genocide — it signals a moral, economic and social failure on a vast scale.

The only complication is that such an act of generosity would raise questions about why, exactly, Australia is willing to offer sanctuary to well-educated, urban, often Anglophone Chinese heritage people while people in other persecuted groups around the world from Muslim, rural and uneducated backgrounds, such as Rohingya refugees from Myanmar or Shia refugees from Syria, aren’t welcome.

The best way to address that is to ensure that our intake from Hong Kong is in addition to our planned humanitarian intake. If done right, Australia can confirm its self-proclaimed status as the world’s most successful multicultural society, help the victims of a tyrannical regime and boost its economy all at once.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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