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As China Clamps Down, Activists Flee Hong Kong for Refuge in the West

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China calls them “violent criminals.” Asylum seekers from Hong Kong are the latest catalyst for deteriorating relations between Beijing and Western countries.
In Western democracies, they have been welcomed as refugees escaping Beijing’s tightening grip over Hong Kong. In China, they have been denounced as violent criminals escaping punishment for their seditious activities. A group of Hong Kong activists who have been granted asylum in the United States, Canada and Germany in recent weeks are the latest catalyst for deteriorating relations between China and the West. Western leaders have asserted that they will stand up for human rights in Hong Kong, while Chinese officials have rebuked the countries for what they called interference in Beijing’s affairs. The protesters’ newly conferred status has made clear how profoundly Hong Kong has changed since China imposed a tough new security law this summer. For decades, the city had been a place of shelter for people escaping war, famine and political oppression in mainland China. Now the semiautonomous city has become a source of asylum seekers. “The United States is a country that allows us freedom,” said Vicky Xiao, a 20-year-old university student from Hong Kong who is in California and seeking asylum in America. Ms. Xiao said she feared being arrested if she returned to Hong Kong because she had taken part in the demonstrations that roiled the city last year. One of her former classmates who had also joined in the demonstrations in Hong Kong had been detained by the police, she said. The United States is directly challenging Beijing over its crackdown on Hong Kong. The Trump administration moved to list refugees from the city as a priority for the first time — even as it reduced the total number of refugees the United States will take in annually. At least three bills now before Congress would enact greater protections for people fleeing Hong Kong for the United States. And the government has moved unusually quickly to grant asylum to at least two protesters who left Hong Kong late last year. The two activists, who asked not to be named to protect their families in Hong Kong, showed The New York Times documents stating they had received asylum in September. They said they had fled to the Los Angeles area after receiving multiple calls from an unlisted number that made them concerned they were at risk of being detained. Ms. Xiao, the university student who is awaiting a decision on her asylum application, is also in Southern California.

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