Who gets to call themselves a Hong Konger, let alone how to define what it means to be of and from Hong Kong, has never had a clear cut answer. In large part, that’s a result of the city’s history as a contested space between “the West” and China, and a transient place, resulting in a Hong Kong identity has long been fluid and nebulous.
Now, a broad and inclusive definition of Hong Kong identity has come from an unlikely source: the US government.
The US has joined the UK, Australia, and Canada in offering varying kinds of immigration measures to protect Hong Kongers from the ongoing political crackdown in Hong Kong, which has seen over 160 individuals arrested under the city’s sweeping national security law. Two people have been convicted so far on what are essentially speech crimes.
The US policy, known as deferred enforced departure (DED), will allow certain Hong Kongers to stay in the US for 18 months, with extensions made at the discretion of the president, according to details published by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) last month. By accepting as proof of Hong Kong identity documents that even the Hong Kong government refuses to recognize, the US government will provide a “safe haven” to a broad swath of individuals who may be at risk of political persecution by Chinese authorities.
“The definition was probably the most prioritized thing [for us],” said Samuel Chu, founder and former managing director of the advocacy group Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), who has lobbied the US government for such an immigration relief measure since the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Defining Hong Kong identity too narrowly—for example, by only accepting the Hong Kong passport—he explained, could have left many individuals with connections to the city in the lurch.
“The major thing was we didn’t want a situation where—and this is just one scenario—if they only accept the Hong Kong SAR passport, that would’ve been fucked up because everyone who has a BNO would have to go to the Chinese embassy” to apply for the passport, Chu said.
DED is a measure used to protect a certain class of individuals from removal from the US. DED decisions, which have been applied to seven countries since their first use in 1990, are typically made in response to risks in the targeted country, including war, civil unrest, natural disaster, and political persecution. Liberia, Venezuela, and Hong Kong are currently covered by DED policies.
In granting Hong Kongers DED, US president Joe Biden was responding directly to the political crackdown in Hong Kong following the imposition of the Beijing-mandated national security law in June 2020. Noting the “significant erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong” and the ongoing “campaign of politically motivated arrests,” Biden in August directed that DED be provided for Hong Kongers.
But relief measures like this present a government with the task of deciding how the term “Hong Konger” should be defined.
At stake in the scope of the definition is who gets to stay in the US, and who faces deportation back to Hong Kong or mainland China—and the risk of arrest and years in prison for any number of vaguely defined political crimes, even if those alleged actions predate the national security legislation.
What the US government settled on is likely one of the world’s most expansive official definitions of Hong Kong identity. Under the DED rules, an individual counts as a Hong Konger if they have any of the following:
- Hong Kong passport: This is typically only granted to those who have Chinese citizenship, meaning they are “of Chinese descent who was born in Hong Kong or other parts of China.”
- British National Overseas (BNO) passport or British Citizen Overseas Passport: This is a slap in the face for Hong Kong authorities, who insist that BNO passports are invalid and have asked foreign governments to stop recognizing the documents.
- Hong Kong permanent identity card: This document grants the holder the right of abode in Hong Kong. Non-Chinese citizens who have lived in Hong Kong for seven years are eligible.
- Hong Kong document of identity for visa purposes: Hong Kong residents who are not eligible for the Hong Kong passport can apply for this and use it as a travel document.
Chu, the founder of HKDC, sketched out several scenarios to explain the significance of the broad Hong Kong identity definition. A Hong Kong passport holder who’s in the US for college under a student visa, and who supported the Hong Kong protests or even called for US sanctions on Chinese officials, can now stay without fear of deportation. Or take a mainland Chinese student at a Hong Kong university, but who happens to be in the US (say, for an exchange program)—that individual will be granted safe haven in the US, too.
In a more extreme scenario, five Hong Kong protesters who fled to Taiwan by speedboat and eventually made it to the US under an arrangement with the State Department will also be eligible for DED.
“A couple of them came with no paperwork, literally,” said Chu, who helped resettle the five in the US. Under the US government’s definition Hong Kong identity, even an expired Hong Kong identity card would plausibly be an accepted document for DED, Chu added, thereby extending protection to vulnerable individuals in precarious situations. DED status also allows individuals to seek work authorization in the US.
The US government doesn’t keep data on the total population covered by DED, so it’s unclear exactly how many Hong Kongers are granted the status.
However, it’s possible to estimate a rough upper bound: fewer than 21,000 (pdf) non-immigrant visas were issued to Hong Kongers in 2020, the bulk of which were temporary visitor visas that typically authorize stays of up to 180 days at a time. Numbers for 2021 could be lower, given increased pandemic travel restrictions. Since DED will only cover Hong Kongers who were present in the US as of Aug. 5, one can calculate backyards and take a fraction of the total number of non-immigrant visas as those eligible for DED, plus what Chu estimates to be “several thousand” Hong Kongers in the US on student visas.
By comparison, according to the Congressional Research Service, about 80,000 Chinese nationals in the US were granted DED following the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre; that status was extended through 1994, and many subsequently became green card holders under the 1992 Chinese Student Protection Act.
Meanwhile, the UK has offered a path to full citizenship to up to 5.4 million Hong Kongers with BNO passports. Around 65,000 Hong Kongers have applied under that scheme as of the latest figures released in August.
Other legislation is being considered by Congress that could eventually grant certain Hong Kongers refugee status and temporary protected status (TPS), which provides deportation relief and work status. There are currently around 320,000 individuals in the US with TPS, from countries including Yemen, Venezuela, Syria, and Sudan.
“We’re not talking about hundreds of thousands of people at the end of the day, “Chu said of the DED measure. “We really are making sure that those who have been really [politically] active, even behind the scenes while in college, who just graduated this year—I don’t want them to go back [to Hong Kong] if they don’t want to go back.”
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect that a Hong Kong document of identity for visa purposes is a specific document issued by the city’s immigration department to residents who do not qualify for a Hong Kong passport. The article earlier stated the category could include a variety of documents, such as a Hong Kong birth certificate.