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Trauma and displacement are no time for profit

  • 13 July 2020
The National Security Law passed by the Chinese government in Hong Kong on 30 June spelled, for many, the end of the territory’s unique political autonomy. After a year of pro-democracy protests, the new law criminalises ‘secessionism’ and ‘terrorism’. The vague legal interpretation of these terms is spurring an exodus of fearful Hongkongers trying to escape arbitrary political persecution.

In a bid to uphold the UK’s responsibilities as the former colonial master of Hong Kong, Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered three million Hongkongers renewable 12-month visas that would put them on a path to British citizenship. The British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab encouraged Britain’s allies to provide refuge to fleeing Hongkongers. Scott Morrison, for one, has answered by expressing his willingness to welcome Hong Kong emigrants to Australia.

Peter Hartcher’s opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on 7 July echoes calls to rehome displaced Hongkongers in the West. Entitled 'Australia set to join "the greatest human capital harvest in recent memory"', Hartcher quotes the Canadian immigration lawyer Richard Kurland to illuminate the economic benefits of welcoming Hongkongers into Australia. His piece lists potential problems of this policy — the recession, housing prices, the pandemic, potential Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agents among the immigrants, the moral issue of prioritising Hongkongers over other asylum seekers, and retaliation from the CCP — and discusses how they can be mitigated for Australia to happily reap capital from these new immigrants.

Hartcher’s voice does not stand alone in international media. This piece follows a trend of liberals calling for the West to open its borders to fleeing Hongkongers for economic benefit. It is commendable that these individuals want the West to offer Hongkongers refuge. But to frame this philanthropy in such mercenary terms makes this goodwill suspect: these voices want to capitalise on a traumatic moment of displacement.

This framing positions Hongkongers as dehumanised, profitmaking assets. The title of the SMH op ed embodies this, referring to them as a ‘human capital harvest’: Hongkongers are fetishised for their potential to generate ‘capital’ for the West. The metaphor of ‘harvest’ robs Hongkongers of agency; instead, they are profitmakers ripe for the West’s picking.

Singling out Hongkongers as optimal immigrants because of their profitmaking potential also plays into the model minority stereotype. This stereotype tends to posit East Asians as ‘good migrants’, since they are often skilled white-collar workers whose labour boosts the economy. Model minority rhetoric leads to the exploitation