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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Ich bin ein Hong Konger, not - Australia's Hong Kong visa solution

Everyone seemed to be expecting a Kennedy in Berlin moment in the lead up to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s “safe haven” visa announcement for Hong Kongese following Beijing’s introduction of a new security law for the Special Administrative Region. But today’s announcement by PM Morrison wasn’t even on a par with Bob Hawke’s post-Tiananmen Square Massacre moment that allowed Chinese students in Australia in 1989 to stay under a specially created visa category (at least one newspaper had anticipated something similar for Hong Kongese seeking to asylum).

Fortunately, what the Prime Minister announced today fell far short of the anticipated new visa class to protect Hong Kongese already in Australia and perhaps those who could get themselves here. The Government probably realised the creation of a new visa category offering Hong Kongese special humanitarian or refugee consideration would have proved especially inflammatory to Beijing. It would have been a step too far in the already strained relations between the two countries.

The Government’s response was restrained, reasonable and moderate. It offered Hong Kongese studying in Australia or working here as skilled professionals on temporary visas a path to permanent residency by extending their visas by an additional five years. This will apply to around 10-12,000 people. In the meantime, Hong Kongese seeking to migrate to Australia would have to do so under existing migration categories and rules that apply to skilled migrants and business migrants. And Hong Kongese who come in the future as temporary skilled professionals will be given five year visas.

Additionally, the Government announced it would look at incentivising businesses looking to leave Hong Kong so they relocate to Australia. As part of that incentivisation, the Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said businesses relocating would be allowed to bring their staff from Hong Kong with them and that those staff would be offered a path to permanent residency. It should be noted that this is meant to appeal to many of the global financial institutions and technology companies that have offices in Hong Kong and which will be looking to relocate given the increasing heavy-handedness of Beijing in the territory and the difficulties such organisations will face operating under an authoritarian regime. Minister Tudge recognised that Australia would have to have a competitive offering to attract these businesses given that many other countries in the region would equally welcome them. This made the suggestion sound like a commercial undertaking (which, frankly, it is) rather than a political statement. (For more details on the announcement see the Prime Minister’s media release.)

Top marks to the Government for its handling of this delicate issue.

However, that doesn’t mean Beijing will be any the more understanding. Indeed, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra has wasted no time in coming out and criticising Australia for "gross interferrence in China’s internal affairs”. Its statement contains what appears to be a dire warning:

"We urge the Australian side to immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs under any pretext or in any way. Otherwise it will lead to nothing but lifting a rock only to hit its own feet."

The last sentence is drawn from a Chinese folk saying. Some sort of retaliation seems likely. Expect punitive measures on some of our exports to China, just as we saw with tariffs applied to barley and suspension of beef exports from certain abattoirs after Canberra called for an independent international investigation of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that started in Wuhan.

Given the restraint of the Australian action one would hope Beijing will also temper its response this time. At the very least, Beijing needs to consider that its support within Australia is starting to wear thin, judging by the results of the Lowy Institute's Poll 2020.

May cool heads prevail. Stay tuned.

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