Let Hongkongers Immigrate to the West—And other Victims of Chinese Government Oppression, too

China's growing crackdown on Hong Kong has inspired calls for the West to allow Hong Kongers to migrate here. They should indeed be allowed to do so - and the same right should be extended to other victims of Chinese government oppression.


The Statue of Liberty.


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's be 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.

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  1. I wish I could vote with my feet and move to Israel but my mother was a mamzer.

  2. “Tragically, today many conservatives have lost sight of what their predecessors knew.”

    I hope you’re not considering Reagan one of those predecessors. Because you can look back to when Thatcher originally sold the residents of Hong Kong to the Chinese, (She owed them the land, she gave them the people, too, by stripping them of their passports.) and Reagan could have done the right thing back then, and admitted them. And didn’t.

    A bit late now, would China actually permit them to leave?

    Another problem, of course, is that China would undoubtedly use the opportunity to insert a fair number of agents into the US, either by including people who were already in their employ in the exodus, or, as they so frequently do with people who’ve escaped, threatening family back home.

    So while the humanitarian case is obvious, you’d have to be careful, just as a matter of national security.

    1. This is my thought as well. I am sympathetic to the idea of allowing a significant number of Hong Kongers to immigrate to the US.

      But we need to extensively vet them individually, not for coronavirus, but for communist party influence in their personal or family life. The CCP is already using Chinese students as its agents, even in street demonstrations in free countries.

      1. The CCP is already using Chinese students as its agents
        First, this is not that canard about making them sign something, is it?

        Second, even if true, if you have any faith in the American way of life being exceptional, you’ll let them get a taste of what liberty can offer.
        It’s not like students get classified access.

        1. Sure, we should admit them. We’re just counseling that precautions be taken.

          And graduate students often end up with classified access to research being done at a university.

          1. Classified access means that grad student would have a secret clearance. Which would mean they must be a US citizen.

            1. American universities are a soft target for China’s spies, say U.S. intelligence officials

              “It was a brazen scheme to steal another company’s product, according to a federal criminal complaint.

              University of Texas professor Bo Mao, prosecutors say, took proprietary technology from an American Silicon Valley start-up and handed it over to a subsidiary of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications conglomerate.

              But what makes the case against Mao particularly noteworthy is how he was accused of carrying out the theft: By using his status as a university researcher to obtain the circuit board under the guise of academic testing.

              Mao, who has pleaded not guilty, is among the latest defendants in a string of U.S. criminal cases alleging Chinese spying in the academic world. In late January, the chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department was arrested by FBI agents in his office, charged with lying about a lucrative relationship with a Chinese talent recruitment program. The same day, a former Boston University student was accused of visa fraud after she allegedly failed to disclose her status as a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army.”

              OK, maybe I should have said “access to classified information”? As in, it’s in the next room, and the lock isn’t all that hot?

              1. Proprietary is definitely not classified.

                Protecting IP is important, but not a national security risk.

                1. That’s an interesting perspective, anyway. Not sure it’s actually US policy, though.

                  1. What? That university IP is generally not classified?

                    Universities do basic research, not applied. Basic research is going to be published. For everyone worldiwde to read. Research for the purpose of publication is both not classified, and exempt from export control restrictions.

                    Something can have bad private economic implications, but not have national security implications.

                    1. “Universities do basic research, not applied. ”

                      Another flatly wrong statement. Universities do applied research all the time.

                    2. Also… universities have entire areas that have classified information and research, see JPL or APL at JHU.

                      How are you so wrong so often.

                      MIT and Harvard have many classified programs.

                    3. Perhaps you’d like it better if I called it Fundamental Research, Jesse? Research for the purpose of publication is the point.

                      Jesse, you are taking about UARCs. They are not universities.

                  2. “What? That university IP is generally not classified?”

                    That protecting IP isn’t a national security risk.

              1. …That’s a site from the Slovak Republic.

              1. From you link:

                While non–U.S. citizens can work with technical information after approval from the Departments of Commerce or State, they could not be authorized to possess U.S. security clearances.


              1. A dude on Quora? Your cherry picking is getting pretty serious, here.

                I work with folks who had to give up their dual citizenship to get a clearance.

                And beyond your extremely badly executed pedantic crusade, you’ve done zero to address the fact that Brett’s argument is wrong. Foreign students are not a vulnerability, because they do not regularly have access to US secrets.

        2. Sometimes people can like fragile things about their country. Like gun rights, they don’t appear very popular with immigrants, but from my POV they are essential to preserving liberty in not only America, but American gun rights from my POV are an inhibitor on tyranny in all our allied nations who free ride off this very important choice (same with our freedom of speech).

          These things can be very good and also very fragile. Our nice and popular things all were built up by the hard choices, but people will be enamored by our nice stuff, but iPhones and Hollywood aren’t incompatible with be a covert Chinese spy.

          1. I’m not thinking of our stuff, I’m thinking of our philosophy, culture, and liberty.

            1. Yeah, but from my POV most of the important stuff that holds all that together is hidden from a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, gen immigrant, and that is plenty of time to vote enough times to dismantle the old norms and then they are nearly impossible to re-establish. This same thing a happened with Irish/Italian immigration which transformed a large number of our big cities in ways that have never gone back. I consider most of those machine politics and related developments to be extremely negative, and extremely hard to dislodge.

              1. Plenty of Chinese students choose to stay here and become citizens. And we are enriched by them.

                Chine has begun to refuse to give waivers to their students’ J-1 Visa return requirement. That’s a very good sign; they’re worried.

                1. “And we are enriched by them.”

                  We’re enriched by many of them, ripped off by some of them. I’m counseling caution, not a uniform rejection.

    2. Saying that anyone of Chinese heritage could possibly be a Communist spy is no different than blaming Julius Rosenberg for the Soviet development of the atomic bomb. Shame on you!

      1. What “Chinese heritage”? We’re not worried about Americans of Chinese ethnicity who’ve been here a long while. Even somebody who came here straight from China might not be a risk if they have no loved ones left at home.

        Somebody with parents or children in China? Absolutely a risk. We’re not just speculating, we KNOW China blackmails former nationals abroad into conducting espionage for them, by threatening family back home.

        This isn’t any joke, China’s spying apparatus is as bad or worse than the USSR’s was during the height of the Cold War.

      2. Julius Rosenberg may have been a Soviet spy, but the notion that it was espionage that let the Soviets develop an atomic bomb is stupid beyond belief.

        The Soviets did not lack for talented physicists. The critical clue did not come from Rosenberg, it came from the US government. And that clue was simple – it could be done.

        Given that information Soviet scientists would have worked it out eventually.

        1. Yeah, eventually. Instead, they could spend that time and effort improving it. So Rosenberg’s spying was only worth a hundred man-years effort by their top scientists and engineers. A trifle!

          This is just a fallback position from the now untenable claim that the Rosenbergs were innocent.

          1. Based on a discussion with Hans Bethe, Daniel Patrick Moynihan judged that the Soviet’s nuclear spy ring saved the Soviets about a year in the production of the h-bomb. I believe it may have saved them more time than that, in that they actually had infiltrated the US’ “secret” nuclear community and were fed information (initially on the fission bomb; later on the fusion device) by Klaus Fuchs very early in the game.

            The Rosenbergs (IMHO) were important for getting the Soviets details of the proximity fuse; less so about the bombs.

          2. I didn’t say they were innocent, Brett, though there is a reasonable case that Ethel did nothing that merited execution.

            I said the information they provided was ultimately not critical to the Soviets efforts to build a bomb.

            This is just a fallback position from the now untenable claim that the Rosenbergs were innocent.

            For the umpteenth time you immediately ascribe bad faith to anyone you disagree with. It’s just a fucking reflex with you.

        2. Actually, it appears that /every/ country that has attempted a nuclear explosion via the “Little Boy” (gun-type, using uranium) design has been successful the first time.

  3. Abandon Hong Kong, their homeland, their birthright? No way! Let them revolt, and TAKE Hong Kong back, with help from the U.S. and other freedom loving nations, just as France helped the U.S. revolt against England.

    1. >their birthright
      I don’t see any document saying that these people have a right to the land of Hong Kong. Who are we to interfere with the internal politics of a sovereign nation? Do the Chinese dictate domestic US politics or attempt to subvert US businesses by stealing intellectual property? Of course not!

  4. Just pointing that this is essentially Trump’s point when he made the “shithole countries” remark. Furthermore Congress gave Cuban refugees special immigration status so obviously they can give any group special status as long as Trump doesn’t say we are giving so and so country special status because they are white Christians or something dumb like that. 😉

  5. Or maybe they should stay and fix their own problems. America is not the dumping ground for people who don’t like their home government.

    1. And how do you propose they do that, you moron?

    2. No, we’re not not a dumping ground, because they’re not garbage. We’re a refuge for such people.

      (I also like how a communist dictatorship is minimized as ”don’t like.”)

  6. “America’s now-badly tarnished international reputation”

    It’s going to take more than that to get past the Obama administration’s befoulment.

  7. This is an excellent post. I totally agree.

    1. If you knew most of the new Chinese Immigrants would vote Republican would you be so enthusiastic?

      1. Are you against it because you think they will vote Democratic – five years from now at the earliest?

    2. So do I bernard11, but with a caveat. I’d want to be a little, how shall I say, discerning about who comes in. I’d be looking for STEM oriented Hong Kongers with the means to support themselves. It looks like Great Britain just opened up 3MM spaces for Hong Kongers, so skimming some of those from the top just makes sense.

      Never mind the propoganda benefit, I want the world’s best and brightest coming here to help build the America of tomorrow.

      1. Well, I don’t think STEM orientation ought to be a requirement. There are lots of good people who aren’t in those professions.

  8. Shoed foot, bare foot: Any Hongkonger who removes his or her shoe going through airport security should be allowed to pursue US residency a year later.

  9. If instead of Hong Kong being in Asia it was in Poland or Hungary we would be falling all over ourselves to let white “refugees” in. Remember, our presidents wants people to immigrate from nice countries not “shithole” countries. That’s why we won’t do anything for Hong Kong but talk. When Hong Kong was handed over to the Chinese in the 1990’s Canada offered to welcome immigrants from China. They used that chance to take the most educated people that applied. The US missed a chance then and it will miss a chance now.

    1. Yes, I was pissed off at the time that we didn’t extend them an open hand; I suspect Reagan didn’t want to insult Thatcher, but it was still a tactical AND moral mistake.

  10. Most Africans, Afghani’s, Pakistanis, Indians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese would more improvement in their quality of life than the Chinese, and many HongKongers quality of life would actually decline by coming to the US.

    Ilya’s one size fits all prescription for any issue in the news makes no sense. Unless of course he thinks the best way to counter China is to surpass them in population in just 10 or 15 years.

  11. most parts of China actually have far lower incidence of Covid than most of the US does

    Says who? The Psychic Friends Network?

    Really, Mr. Somin, you should damn well know better. The Chinese government couldn’t report accurate numbers if Xi’s life depended on it. They don’t know what the incidence of COVIID-19 is in China for the same reason the Soviet government didn’t know what its actual economic production numbers were; every single local official has an incentive to lie.

  12. Odd how we never apply this analysis to those horrible dictatorships we support. Pretty hard to get a visa from there.

    Unfortunately the legal analysis has to incorporate elements of pediatric psychology these days. We are forced to call it the “shithole country” analysis because that is the word used.

  13. Nothing prevents Professor Somin from arguing this as a political or policy position. Although we are not required to adapt universalist moral theories or even show much in the way of compassion for outsiders, we can.

  14. What would be the point? Once Democrats have the U.S. electorate sewn up, we’ll be no different from China.

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