A helmeted head is blurry in the foreground, behind it, a line of protesters on a balcony

Global Politics

The problem with offers of citizenship to those fleeing Hong Kong

Physicist Yangyang Cheng was born in mainland China and took advantage of a visa program a decade ago to come to the United States to study. She says she's troubled by the language politicians and governments are using to promote resettlement policies for Hong Kong residents.

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Riot police patrol at a shopping mall during a protest after China's parliament passes national security law for Hong Kong, in Hong Kong, China June 30, 2020.

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Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Ever since China passed a new national security law in Hong Kong, several countries have said they would welcome those who want to leave the special administrative region. Critics of the law say it will severely limit the political and civil rights of Hongkongers. 

The United Kingdom has said passport holders from Hong Kong would be able to apply for citizenship. Australia is offering visa extensions, along with a path to citizenship, to students and highly talented individuals.

Yangyang Cheng, a Chinese expat, says she's troubled by the language politicians and governments are using to promote resettlement policies for Hong Kong residents. She said these governments are focusing on a privileged few instead of the poor and disenfranchised.

Cheng, who is a particle physicist at Cornell University, was born in mainland China and took advantage of a visa program just over a decade ago to come to the United States to study. Cheng recently penned an opinion piece for The Guardian pointing out why offers from western governments to resettle those fleeing Hong Kong are problematic. Cheng told The World that a person leaving one's homeland involves trading one set of freedoms for another.

Related: Ai Weiwei: Hong Kong security law ‘the last nail of the coffin’

Carol Hills: Why do you find visa offers for Hong Kong residents from places like Australia and the UK so problematic?

Yangyang Chang: I think I should first emphasize that I believe very strongly in migration as a human right. However, what we are seeing from a lot of the language in a policy and the punditry with regard to resettlement proposals for Hong Kong residents is that the host countries, whether it's the UK or Australia and to some extent some members of the US government as well, they are only seeing the most privileged, the most well-educated, the ones who have the most resources. And they are seeing this policy as a way to enrich their own countries. And I found that to be a dehumanizing perspective.

The poor, the disenfranchised, the people who do not have the resources and most importantly, the people who have no willingness to leave their homeland, they are seen as some kind of political chess piece, as some kind of resource that can be extracted.

Your fear is that these visa programs end up leaving behind everyone but a privileged few?

When people who have faced the menace of a border, including myself, we have to turn a part of ourselves into a currency, whether it is our savings, our degrees, our skills, our labor. And at the very least, it's also our stories, our despair and our pain that are being used to purchase this ticket of crossing. And that is a traumatizing experience. And I do hope that people who have been living in a place of their birth, who can just exist with nothing to prove, recognize that. And I think what the coronavirus pandemic has shown us is that nations and humans are all porous entities. So it's not possible to build any individual or any country into this kind of bubble and exist alone as an island. We are all connected. Our present, as well as our future.

One recent survey of Hong Kong citizens found that if Hong Kong has had to relocate, most would want to go to Taiwan. I mean, Britain and the US ranked even below mainland China as a favorite destination. Does that surprise you?

That didn't surprise me. People who choose to leave their homelands favor geographical, cultural and linguistic proximity to their place of birth. And that is just human nature. The fact that mainland China ranked higher than Britain and the US as a place of relocation is that there are also indeed people who are more conservative and pro-establishment in Hong Kong.

You relied on a US student visa to open the door to what you hoped would be a life of greater freedom in the US. At the time, your mother warned you saying freedom cannot be eaten like rice. What did she mean?

My mother's generation has never seen or experienced political freedom but has experienced China when it was very poor. The Chinese government has bound the Chinese people into this binary choice. On one hand, there is material prosperity and social stability. On the other hand, there are civil liberties and political freedom. However, we should understand that this is not a mutually exclusive choice. And that is where I pushed back at my mother when she suggested that. But I also recognize that she is saying that from a personal experience, as a loving gesture, as a gesture of warning, that any kind of dissent or rebellion comes at a cost, that freedom is not free.

What do you think Western governments should do when they see Beijing tightening its grip on Hong Kong?

One thing is, whether it's governments or individuals who are used to live in a liberal democratic system, they have often underestimated their power, but overestimated their adherence to principles. I think they are actually a lot of very insidious ways liberal democracies cave to authoritarianism by favoring market access, by favoring an economic benefit, by favoring some kind of geopolitical calculation. And I think these are the things that governments and individuals need to reflect on. Know where to hold t he line, know where to stand up for the collective values and principles.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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