Two Hong Kong residents who took part in last year's anti-extradition movement, which broadened into calls for greater accountability and fully democratic elections, have been granted political asylum in the United States, RFA has learned.
Zheng Cunzhu, a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China who now works as an immigration consultant in Los Angeles, said the approvals came through after a long hiatus by the Citizenship and Immigration during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pair fled Hong Kong after the suspicious death of Chan Yin-lam, a 15-year-old competitive swimmer who was ruled to have died by drowning after her body was found floating in the sea at the height of the protest movement.
The pair are siblings, and the younger brother was Chan's classmate, Zheng said.
"The sister, who is in her 20s, is already working," Zheng said. "The younger brother is in college."
"Chan Yin-lam was the brother's classmate, who was said [by police] to have committed suicide by jumping into the sea," he said.
But an inquest by a five-person jury into Chan's death unanimously ruled out suicide as a cause of death, beyond reasonable doubt, resulting in an open verdict in September 2020.
Zheng said the success of the two young people's asylum claim showed widespread recognition of a worsening human rights situation in Hong Kong in the wake of mass public protests over the creeping loss of the city's promised freedoms.
"The situation in Hong Kong is getting worse," Zheng said. "Their parents were starting to worry by around Christmas , so they let them go the the U.S. to stay with relatives there."
"It just so happened that those relatives are my friends, and I suggested that they apply for asylum here," he said.
Zheng said neither of the two were leading figures in the movement, or frontline fighters who defended unarmed protesters from tear gas, rubber bullets, or baton charges and arrest and other forms of violence by riot police.
"There were still a lot of things that bothered their parents, including the sudden death of Chan Yin-lam and the protests at their school over the police claim of suicide," he said.
"Also, a classmate of the sister was arrested ... neither of them was arrested themselves, but the overall situation has deteriorated," Zheng said.
Possible further jeopardy
He said the imposition by the ruling Chinese Communist party of the draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong from June 30 placed the pair in further potential jeopardy, should they return to Hong Kong.
"If the police found out their personal details, they would be arrested under this law," Zheng said.
He said the two are now able to live, work, and study in the U.S., and are eligible to benefit from social assistance programs.
"One year from today, they will be able to apply for a green card from the U.S. government, which isn't very different from citizenship, apart from the lack of voting rights," he said.
He said the applications had been greatly delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic after they submitted it in January and February.
"They were given interviews ... last month, and we discovered on [Sept. 29] that their applications were approved."
First to gain asylum
Zheng said according to publicly available information, the pair are the first Hongkongers to be granted political asylum in the U.S.
He said recent motions in Congress calling for immigration support for Hongkongers in the wake of the national security crackdown had "opened the door" to asylum applications from Hongkongers.
"It also proves that there has been a severe deterioration in Hong Kong's human rights situation," he said. "Judicial independence and democratic freedoms are a thing of the past."
Zheng said that, as a veteran of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China, which had received support from the people of Hong Kong for many years, he was happy to give back that support in their hour of need.
"Many young students from mainland China, with the help of Hong Kong compatriots, fled to Hong Kong, from where they traveled to countries in the West," Zheng said.
"I know of more than a dozen such students who are now lawyers in the U.S. or who work in law firms here," he said, calling on them to provide free or low-cost legal assistance to fleeing Hongkongers.
The National Security Law for Hong Kong proclaimed that anyone, anywhere in the world, could be prosecuted under the law for words or deeds defined by Beijing as separatist or subversive, or deemed to show terrorist intent or "collusion with foreign powers."
The vaguely worded law also threatens anyone criticizing the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities anywhere in the world, prompting Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to end their extradition arrangements with Hong Kong.
Reported by Gao Feng and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
Copyright © 1998-2018, RFA. Published with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036