The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
China's growing crackdown on the liberties of Hong Kong citizens has stimulated calls for the US and other Western nations to allow Hongkongers fleeing Chinese oppression to immigrate. Matthew Yglesias of Vox and Eli Lake of Bloomberg News have both recently published articles making that case. As they explain, such a step is justified on moral grounds, and would also have important economic and geopolitical advantages. To its credit, the British government has announced that it will create a potential path to UK citizenship for almost 3 million Hong Kong residents who already have the right to temporary visa status in Britain. But more can be done to provide refuge for the people of Hong Kong who may soon be in dire need of it.
Yglesias effectively summarizes some of the advantages of welcoming Hongkongers who wish to come the United States:
An influx of skilled migrants from Hong Kong would benefit many American communities. The specter of tens of thousands of people fleeing Chinese rule for American shores would be a tremendous propaganda victory for the United States. And pulling it off would be a proof of concept for what should be a key tool in Sino-American competition — that huge numbers of foreigners may welcome the opportunity to move to the US.
As Yglesias recognizes, both Hong Kong migrants and Chinese immigrants generally have been enormously productive in the US and other Western nations, thereby boosting the receiving nations' economies. It is also clear that the images of Chinese finding refuge from oppression by coming to the US would be a major boost to America's now-badly tarnished international reputation, and a blow to China's position in the international "war of ideas."
During the Cold War, American conservatives readily understood that welcoming refugees from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other communist nations was a major boost to America's prestige and a blow to that of the communists. The better political system is the one people "vote with their feet" to live under, not the one many risked their lives to flee. I myself was one of the fortunate beneficiaries of this understanding.
Tragically, today many conservatives have lost sight of what their predecessors knew. Instead of welcoming Chinese, they foolishly want to make it harder for them to come, by, for example, barring Chinese students from studying STEM subjects at US universities (after which many seek to stay in the US and continue contributing to the economy and our technological development). It is almost as if these supposed China hawks would prefer for the brutal Chinese government to retain control over as many talented people as possible. Perhaps recent events in Hong Kong will lead to a reconsideration of this simultaneously cruel and counterproductive stance.
Migration rights for victims of Chinese government oppression should not be limited to residents of Hong Kong. We should not forget that many mainland Chinese are subject to far worse persecution and tyranny than anything that has so far happened in Hong Kong. For example, China has detained some 1 million members of the Uighur minority in concentration camps and inflicted severe repression even on those members of the group who remain "free." The wave of repression in recent years has also impacted even Han Chinese (the dominant ethnic group) who question government policy. To take just one example, last year the government shut down the Unirule Institute, a prominent liberal think tank that questioned the government's repressive economic and social policies (I gave a talk at Unirule's offices when I was a visiting professor in China in 2014). These and other victims of Chinese government repression deserve refuge no less than Hong Kongers do. And offering it to them will have many of the same advantages for the US and our allies.
We can, if we choose, once again be the nation that even the populations of our adversaries can aspire to join. That's a much better image than being the nation that closes its doors to almost all migrants and refugees seeking permanent residency, and brutally separates families at the border. Not only is the former nation more just than the latter. It also has a much better chance of effectively countering China in any geopolitical competition, and winning world opinion over to our side.
Some might worry that admitting Chinese refugees would risk spreading the coronavirus. At this point, Hong Kong and most parts of China actually have far lower incidence of Covid than most of the US does. But, in any event, there is a much better way to address any possible risk than barring migrants entirely. We can impose a 14-day quarantine on entrants from potentially dangerous areas, as in South Korea, which has done a far better job of constraining COVID-19 than the U.S. By that means, migrants can be isolated until it is clear they do not have the virus or are no longer contagious. A 14-day quarantine may be a deal-breaker for tourists or business travelers. But for migrants seeking a new home, it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to live in a society that offers greater freedom and opportunity.
Even if the refuge offered to Hong Kongers is broadened to include other victims of Chinese government oppression, it might still seem arbitrary to deny entry to others fleeing comparable or even worse repression by other regimes. In my view, the right to decide which nation you wish to live under should not be limited by arbitrary circumstances of birth, such as who your parents were, or where you were born. Admitting Chinese refugees, but not similarly situated people from other nations, perpetuates such distinctions.
But the best should not be the enemy of the good. Reducing migration restrictions barring victims of the Chinese government diminishes the number of potential migrants who are barred from seeking freedom and condemned to oppression by circumstance of birth, even if it does not eliminate the problem completely. I addressed this issue in greater detail in a 2017 post criticizing President Obama's decision to deny entry to most Cuban refugees:
The main rationale for the policy change is that it is unfair to treat Cuban refugees differently from those fleeing other oppressive governments. As President Obama put it, we should treat them "the same way we treat migrants from other countries." Ideally, we should welcome all who flee oppression, regardless of whether their oppressors are regimes of the left or the right, or radical Islamists.
But the right way to remedy this inequality is not to treat Cuban refugees worse, but to treat other refugees better. And if the latter is not politically feasible, we should at least refrain from exacerbating the evil by facilitating the oppression of Cubans. It is better to protect Cuban refugees from the risk of deportation than none at all.
If a police force disproportionately abuses blacks, it would be unjust to "fix" the inequality by inflicting similar abuse on whites or Asians. Inflicting abuse on other groups is both unjust in itself and unlikely to help blacks. Similarly, the injustice inflicted on refugees from other oppressive regimes cannot and should not be corrected by imposing similar injustices on Cubans.
Some might argue that Cubans, Chinese and other victims of oppression have a duty to stay home and "fix their own countries." I criticized that view here, and in greater detail in Chapter 5 of my new book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.
In sum, welcoming Hongkongers and others fleeing Chinese government repression will help our economy, and give the US a leg up in geopolitical competition with our greatest current rival. Perhaps most important of all, it is the right thing to do.
UPDATE: I have updated this post to reflect the UK government's recent announcement that it will create a path to citizenship for almost 3 million Hongkongers, far more than the previously announced 300,000.