The young activists marching for democracy here face a serious risk from an unexpected source: Visa laws that could greatly complicate and, in some cases, bar students who are arrested from traveling to the United States or Britain. There is a simple way to correct this injustice, but it would require U.S. and British officials to challenge Beijing’s overly broad warnings against “foreign interference.”
The Hong Kong students massing in the streets as part the Occupy Central movement have been bitterly disappointed by what they perceive to be Beijing’s betrayal of a promise to allow genuine democratic elections. Hong Kong authorities made arrests over the weekend and have threatened more. But a criminal record not only complicates the lives of Hong Kong students while they are in Hong Kong; it also imposes penalties if they wish to travel abroad.
A Hong Kong student who is arrested, even if the arrest does not result in a conviction, must declare that arrest on any visa applications to the United States. But such a declaration can greatly delay the visa: U.S. embassy Web sites warn that those who have been arrested or convicted face a review process of up to six months or more while officials determine whether the charge involved “moral turpitude.” The applicant may be deemed permanently ineligible for a visa, requiring a special waiver to enter the country. British laws likewise impose penalties. If a Hong Kong resident is convicted of an offense, however unfairly, and spends time in jail, he or she will be barred from entering Britain for five years, absent exceptional circumstances. Such restrictions can be a heavy blow to students who hope to study in the United States or Britain.
In effect, U.S. and British visa rules play into the hands of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments by discouraging protest, adding to the arsenal they can use in their campaign to stifle progress toward democracy.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Britain and the United States can declare that any visa applicants who are arrested in connection with the Occupy Central protests will have their cases subjected to expedited review. Such changes would spare students months of uncertainly about their travel and immigration plans.
Beijing may complain that expedited review would be a form of “foreign interference” — a shopworn charge that dates back to Mao Zedong’s complaints that CIA infiltrators were attempting to subvert Communist rule. This proposal, however, is a far cry from any actual “interference” and has an altogether different objective. Its purpose would not be to change China or to favor one side over the other, but simply to mitigate an unintended consequence of U.S. and British visa laws. It’s not “interference” to prevent your own laws from helping authoritarian regimes squelch democracy.
Robert Edward Precht is president of Justice Labs Limited, a Hong Kong-based think tank.