The United States is "considering" measures to allow Hongkongers to settle in the US following Beijing's imposition of its sweeping national security law over the city, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told lawmakers on Thursday.
"We're reviewing that, we're considering it," Pompeo said when asked whether the US should extend asylum or visa opportunities to people in Hong Kong, adding that he thought Britain had made a "good decision" by offering a path to UK citizenship.
US President Donald Trump was "actively considering how we ought to treat those who seek asylum coming to us from Hong Kong, or to grant a visa programme that surrounds that," said Pompeo, appearing before senators at a State Department budget hearing.
But in a sign that the issue is not cut-and-dry for an administration that has sought to curtail immigration and has slashed refugee quotas, Pompeo said that the government also wanted to "encourage people to try to work from within to the extent that they can".
But the ability of those still in Hong Kong to effect political reform was cast into further doubt just hours before Pompeo's appearance, when the Hong Kong government disqualified 12 pro-democracy hopefuls from running in the legislative council elections, citing the candidates' past appeals to foreign governments for sanctions against China.
Officials previously stressed that the national security law, which criminalises a broad range of acts under the categories of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with a foreign power, would not be applied retroactively following its enactment in June.
The Trump administration's weighing of measures to welcome Hongkongers to settle in the US comes on the heels of similar moves by other countries, including the UK, which will provide a path to citizenship for holders of the British National (Overseas) passport and their immediate family members.
A broad executive order signed by Trump this month did not commit to providing unconditional support to Hongkongers fleeing the city, but did order that "admissions within the refugee ceiling set by the annual Presidential Determination [be reallocated] to residents of Hong Kong based on humanitarian concerns".
Yet the Trump administration has repeatedly lowered the annual refugee ceiling, which stands at 18,000 for the 2020 financial year. Trump, meanwhile, has made an iron-fisted approach to immigration a cornerstone of his past and present presidential campaigns.
"The disturbing reality is that the Trump administration has crippled and decimated this country's ability to provide life-saving asylum or refugee resettlement to people fleeing persecution, whether they are fleeing Hong Kong or other places," said Eleanor Acer, senior director of refugee protection at advocacy organisation Human Rights First.
Given its slashing of the refugee quota, the administration's move to reallocate refugee allotment slots to Hongkongers was "disingenuous lip service", Acer added.
Pompeo's appearance on Capitol Hill came after Democrat staffers on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a scathing report on Tuesday criticising the State Department's failure to fill key vacancies, alleging mistreatment and retaliation against career officials, and describing a "crisis of morale" in the department.
"I'm disappointed that instead of making America first among the nations of the world, we have relinquished our leadership to the applause and approval of China and Russia," said Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, at the start of Thursday's proceedings. "That makes America last."
During the hearing - a tense affair though notably less combative than Attorney General William Barr's Capitol Hill appearance earlier this week - Pompeo contended that the US had in fact been successful in forging alliances with other countries, particularly on matters relating to China.
He had been "surprised and dismayed", however, that 53 countries had voiced their support at the United Nations Human Rights Council for Beijing's national security law over Hong Kong, almost double the number of states that formally opposed the law.
Pressed on remarks he made last week calling for a global, anti-China "alliance of democracies", Pompeo charged that some nations understood the "threat" that China posed but did not yet feel "empowered" to take a stand against Beijing.
Mike Pompeo is seen in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday. Photo: The Hill via Bloomberg alt=Mike Pompeo is seen in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday. Photo: The Hill via Bloomberg
"So we are working our diplomats, trying to build out a set of relationships," he continued. "Whether that's part of a formal organisation or not, I'm not sure I know the answer to [that] yet."
Pompeo also faced a critical line of questioning about accusations made by former national security adviser John Bolton that Trump had expressed his support of mass internment camps in Xinjiang in a private conversation with Xi.
Pompeo did not address those reported remarks when asked by Senator Jeff Merkley whether the US government should be "more robust at every level in condemning the Chinese enslavement of the Uygurs," but said he was "proud" of the way the US had responded to the alleged human rights abuses.
Without elaboration, he also said that his department was working with the Treasury to roll out new punitive measures against Chinese entities over the treatment of ethnic minority groups.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.