Trauma and displacement are no time for profit



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.

Rear view of woman on Hong Kong street (d3sign/Getty Images)

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 of Asian immigrants’ labour and offers acceptance into Western society on the condition that they comply with white hegemony. On the flipside, the model minority stereotype demonises black and brown immigrants, especially asylum seekers fleeing war, as ‘lazy troublemakers’ since they do not offer the same skills and economic benefits.


'There is a conceit in Australia jumping in to profit from Hong Kong’s loss of political autonomy, since our government barely tried to ensure its preservation in the first place.'


What’s more, this kind of economic view on emigration fails to address how the West can help working class Hongkongers. Hongkongers are stereotyped as middle-class, white-collar workers and working-class Hongkongers are ignored. This demographic has been as involved in pro-democracy activism as many of their middle-class compatriots and are equally victimised by the National Security Law. The difference is that they may not have the financial resources to organise emigration, nor do they offer ‘desirable’ skills for the West. Do they deserve political asylum less than middle-class Hongkongers?

There is a conceit in Australia jumping in to profit from Hong Kong’s loss of political autonomy, since our government barely tried to ensure its preservation in the first place. Hong Kong-Australian diaspora communities protested and lobbied throughout 2019 for the government to take a stronger stance on Hong Kong issues. The responses were flaccid. There is a sense that, if more Western governments had taken a stronger stance on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Hongkongers would not have to leave their home in the first place. So much of Hong Kong identity is rooted in place: the cluster of islands linked together by roads, rail, and ferries; its spearing skyscraper topography; the maze of hawker shops and press of civilian bodies. Displacement is inherently traumatic. Offering overseas asylum is a flimsy alternative to people being able to stay in their homelands.

One can point out the Australian government’s hypocrisy in opening its borders to Hongkongers fleeing authoritarianism when it is becoming increasingly authoritarian itself. From the indefinite and inhumane detention of asylum seekers, to police raids on journalists’ homes in 2019, to attempts to silence and discredit local Black Lives Matter protests, Australia’s commitment to anti-authoritarianism comes across as disingenuous.

Is the West even a safe space for incoming Hongkongers? Sure, they will escape Beijing’s clampdown on free speech. But Western nations’ continued failure to confront systemic racism means that they cannot provide a genuine second home to fleeing Hongkongers. Hartcher alludes the potential for racism against new immigrants in his article, wondering whether locals would complain about Hongkongers ‘taking Australian jobs’ (the catchcry of Pauline Hanson and her ilk), then brushes over the issue by claiming that Hongkongers’ skills will create jobs. Racists would not necessarily subscribe to this logic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has overseen a rise in anti-Chinese sentiment. Unable to distinguish between Asian ethnicities, Sinophobes have attacked all kinds of Asians — Hongkongers would not be immune to these aggressions. Besides physical assault, Asians in the West have always faced racism in the form of microaggressions and the ‘bamboo ceiling’, which locks them out of more successful positions in the workplace.

Most insidious of all is the desire to profit from Hongkongers’ displacement. The social upheaval, police brutality, political persecution, and pandemic that Hong Kong has faced in the last year have already left its citizens traumatised; the loss of free speech and subsequent displacement is another blow to the civic psyche. Instead of sympathy for Hongkongers, there is an expectation that traumatised, displaced people will keep churning out profit.

By all means, the West should support Hongkongers fleeing political persecution. But the mercenary and dehumanised way of framing this issue invites the question: does a compassionate nation accept political asylum seekers solely because of their profitmaking potential?



Salina Cheung is a Hong Kong-Australian postgraduate history student at the University of Sydney.

Main image: Rear view of woman on Hong Kong street (d3sign/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Salina Cheung, Hong Kong, Australia, immigration



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Existing comments

"Singling out Hongkongers as optimal immigrants because of their profitmaking potential also plays into the model minority stereotype." What an amazing article! So much to quote but so little space. You've really hit the nail on the head with all the points you've addressed in this article. I think, my opinion of Hongkongers was shaped by the way the students rallied and protested against the change to the curriculum. It was inspiring. The love they have for their country should not be lost in the debate over asylum. So, indeed, "Offering overseas asylum is a flimsy alternative to people being able to stay in their homelands."
Najma Sambul | 13 July 2020

At least before COVID, Chinese on the mainland studied and holidayed overseas and some even migrated to marry overseas partners and raise families in foreign lands, with no interference from the Communist Party. In the meantime, the malls at home were clogged as the precious resource known as currency was exchanged for vast quantities of meretricious depreciables in a bauble materialist culture. (Real capitalism is a middle class which has meaningful opportunities in which to invest, but that’s a story for another day.) Why, after some settling in, won’t Hong Kong (but for COVID) be any different?
roy chen yee | 13 July 2020

ingenuine.’ As in ‘disingenuous’? However, ‘ingenuine’ is just the non-word needed to falsify the claim of Evolution as the efficient engine of progress, the rationale for the atheism of, among others, the Chinese Communist Party and the Western cultural Marxist. If English wanted to evolve an antonym to ‘genuine’ which required less use of the tongue and muscles of the mouth than ‘disingenuous’ (or the hypothetical word ‘ungenuine’), ‘ingenuine’ would have been it. But, in hundreds of years, supposedly efficient ‘evolution’ of the use of the mouth and tongue of our language group never came up with this word. If there is intelligence latent in creation, it’s not ‘evolution’ which is its cause, or, by extension, Chinese ‘communism’, or hoi polloi West leftism.
roy chen yee | 13 July 2020

The government has said Hong Kong people are free to apply for asylum but at this stage, no special component is to be reserved. Many skilled Hong Kong residents will arrive via skilled migration and other visas. There have been claims that humanitarian protection is not based on the potential contribution of those seeking protection. This is not correct historically. Here is historian John Hirst in 2014 on The Conversation outlining insight into the beginnings of the post war migration program and the attendant refugee cohort . He says: “The Displaced Persons who came to Australia were Latvians and Estonians (the Balts), Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs and Yugoslavs, 170,000 in all, a startlingly new element in British Australia. These victims of war were never depicted as people who had suffered much and needed a new home; they were to be welcomed because they were useful.” If the Morrison government follows this path, it is reverting to a practice long exercised. This holds true for many countries. Germany hoped the large Syrian influx of 2015 would man their industries. Brazil hopes its welcome to Venezuelans - young, educated, culturally linked to Brazilians - will create a broadening economy, building regional links and trade. All are done with a solid economic imperative.
John | 15 July 2020


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