Australia has granted thousands of Hong Kong students and workers already in Australia extensions to their visas and begun actively recruiting skilled migrants from the global financial hub. The decision, which follows more than a month of preparation by the federal government, is as much about symbolism as it is economic opportunity.
It comes after more than a year of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong over the rising influence of Beijing. Fed up with the insurrection, China imposed severe national security laws on the residents of the former British colony in June.
The Morrison government offered to extend the visas of 10,000 Hongkongers already in Australian universities and workplaces in response, but questions still remain over the diplomatic implications of the decision and the limits of the scheme. So who will be eligible for a visa? How does it work?
Why are we offering Hong Kong residents visas?
Hong Kong has historically maintained a semi-autonomous status since it was handed over to China in 1997 but its residents now face life in prison for undermining the Chinese state or participating in the pro-independence movement. Schools, universities and the media are being told to promote national security education. Protesters have been warned against raising blank pieces of paper that replaced pro-independence signs.
The laws are so broad that partaking in a pro-democracy meeting or waving a pro-independence flag in Australia could see Hongkongers arrested when they arrive home. The legislation is extra-territorial, which means any act that is perceived as undermining the Chinese state anywhere in the world could be considered a crime.
Who can get the visas?
More than 8200 students, 900 temporary graduate visa and 570 temporary skilled visa holders now in Australia – and 2000 who have had their visas approved but are still overseas – are eligible for the five-year extension. They will then be able to apply for permanent residency after the extension expires.
Up to 1000 working holiday makers and tourists are not eligible but can apply for asylum through the humanitarian stream if they fear persecution or through the skills list if they have an ability that Australia has a shortage of.
Hong Kong, which historically functioned as an intermediary between the East and the West, has a high proportion of accountants, auditors, IT and financial services experts. All of those professions are on Australia’s skilled occupation list.
The Opposition wants the government to go further and offer more humanitarian places directly to Hong Kong residents still in the territory and guarantee that no Hongkonger will be involuntarily deported from Australia.
“Family reunion is not clear, there are still many people who are ineligible for the pathways proposed and I would urge the government to clarify this urgently,” said Labor’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong.
There is no yearly data on the number of Hong Kong residents who have applied for refugee status since pro-democracy protests began in the territory more than 15 months ago, but the former assistant secretary of the Department of Immigration, Simon De Vere, said political activists would have a good prima facie case for claiming asylum. Department of Home Affairs data shows only 4 per cent of more than 9000 onshore protection visa applications lodged by Chinese applicants last year were granted. More than 40 Hong Kong residents applied for protection in March and April this year.
De Vere, who is now director of Migration Services at Stirling Henry Global Migration, said the firm had seen a 20-fold increase in the number of inquiries from Hong Kong residents looking to migrate to Australia in the week the visa package was announced.
“Its the first time in a long time we are starting to see some really substantial curiosity,” he said.
The government is still weighing up whether to scrap the 45-year age limit on permanent residency for the Hong Kong migrants who are either in or planning on coming to Australia.
De Vere said for business people the current age limit of 45 for permanent residency was a significant hurdle. “People get their bachelors degree, settle down and get married and have kids. When they are starting to get to the point of thinking about where they want to be long term – they run up against the age limit,” he said.
The government will also bulk up the Global Talent temporary visa scheme to focus on Hongkongers but, to be eligible, applicants have to have an income of more than $153,600 a year. Once they are in Australia, they will also have a pathway to permanent residency. It has claimed it will recruit entire export-orientated businesses and their staff from Hong Kong to Australia but there are few details available on how this will be done.
What are the politics?
In offering to extend visas for those students and workers already in Australia, the Morrison government is attempting to walk a thin diplomatic line by condemning the actions of the Chinese Communist Party at the same time as it argues those people are already in the country and it is therefore a domestic political decision.
The second component of its scheme is more assertive and attempts to capitalise on the unrest in Hong Kong by incentivising skilled workers, investors and entire companies to move to Australia. This is an economic play.
It aims to avoid the term safe-haven visas despite being that in all but name and the government privately acknowledging that humanitarian applicants from Hong Kong are unlikely to be rejected.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong welcomed the package. “Australia’s new visa policy serves as a vital safe haven for freedom-loving Hongkongers amid political persecution under China’s new Orwellian law,” he said.
Beijing, which maintains the laws are necessary to restore stability, safety and stamp out terrorism, has accused Australia of a serious violation of international law through a gross interference in China’s internal affairs.
The decision to offer protection to the citizens of our largest trading partner is likely to further damage the bilateral trading relationship.
China threatened to take further actions in response on Thursday. “All consequences will be borne by the Australian side,” its Ministry of Foreign
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Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.