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The U.S. House of Representatives on Monday passed a bill to let residents of Hong Kong live and work in the U.S. through a form of humanitarian relief that’s reserved for people from regions struck by war, natural disaster, or other dire circumstances.
The bill aims “to protect Hong Kongers facing persecution under the Chinese government’s tightening grip” by allowing Hong Kong residents who have been “targeted for exercising their democratic freedoms” to seek refuge in the U.S., according to a Monday press release from Rep. Tom Malinowski (D–N.J.), one of the bill’s sponsors.
The act would allow Hong Kong residents who are already in the U.S. and who fear political persecution in Hong Kong to remain in the country. It would also expedite refugee applications from Hong Kong residents and exclude them from the U.S. government’s annual cap on refugee admissions, which the Trump administration cut to an all-time low earlier this year.
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Malinowski and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R–Ill.) introduced the legislation, titled the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act, which must gain Senate approval and President Donald Trump’s signature before becoming law.
The legislation—sponsored by Democratic and Republican representatives and moved by consensus through the House—highlights the growing bipartisan unity in Washington on issues related to Hong Kong and Beijing.
The bill grants Hong Kong residents Temporary Protected Status, a special U.S. immigration designation given to people from regions that are deemed unsafe.
There are currently ten countries on the TPS list: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The Trump administration last year declined to extend TPS to people from Venezuela, while a coalition of mostly Democrats proposed a bill to do so.
Hong Kong would be the wealthiest region by far to receive a TPS designation, with a gross domestic product per capita of roughly $49,000, more than ten times that of El Salvador, currently the country with the highest GDP per capita on the TPS list, according to World Bank data.
The bill’s passage through the House is one in a series of U.S. government actions to counter Beijing’s perceived incursions on Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China with separate judicial, legal, and financial structures to the mainland and its own constitution, which guarantees it a “high degree of autonomy” from China’s central government.
The U.S., the U.K., and other countries criticized Beijing’s implementation of a sweeping national security law for Hong Kong in June as evidence of Beijing encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties. Experts see the law as a possible threat to Hong Kong’s status as a free-wheeling financial hub.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo placed visa restrictions on some Chinese officials and shut down five U.S.-China cultural exchange programs, calling them “propaganda tools” of China’s government.
The Chinese government hasn’t yet publicly commented on the bill’s passage in the House, but in the past, Beijing has consistently denounced U.S. actions on Hong Kong as interference in China’s internal affairs. “China urges the U.S. side to immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, speaking about the U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials, said in a Monday press conference.
Since the national security law came into effect, several prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have received prison sentences and opposition lawmakers have been expelled from the city’s legislature.
In response to the national security law, the U.K., which governed Hong Kong as a British colony until 1997, announced a pathway to British citizenship for some Hong Kong residents, and Germany and Canada have granted asylum to people from Hong Kong in recent months.
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