Naive asylum bid a road to nowhere

Editorial | Mary Ma 30 Oct 2020

It's often too simple and sometimes naive to assume the US Consulate General in Hong Kong would protect asylum seekers - and the Tony Chung Hon-lam incident is a living example.

If the incident was clouded in mystery at the start, more information emerged a day after the attempt by Chung and some members of the now-disbanded Studentlocalism to seek refuge in the consulate.

Chung first appeared on Tuesday morning but it was early and the consulate was closed. As he went off to grab a cup of coffee nearby, he was nabbed by national security police who had likely been tailing him.

Chung's bad luck? Probably.

Hours later, four others made similar attempts and news photographs showed they were actually inside the consulate. Immediately, reports that they had sought asylum went viral on local social media, but the four later left the compound.

Again, their bad luck? No.

Although the consulate remained tight-lipped, it is most likely that they turned the would-be asylum seekers away.

I can imagine how astonished the four youngsters must have been. Perhaps one can only say that they were simple minded if not naive, not knowing that attempts to seek refuge in a foreign diplomatic mission often end in failure.

Although there have been successful examples, these are not common.

Mainland astrophysicist Fang Lizhi's escape was among the successful few. A day after PLA soldiers opened fire on students and workers in and near Tiananmen Square in 1989, Fang and his wife entered the US embassy in Beijing. The couple lived there for the next 13 months. They were flown out of the country in June 1990 only after secret negotiations between the US and Chinese governments.

Japan, a US ally, reportedly agreed to resume lending to Beijing in exchange for the couple's freedom in the West.

The embassy could have turned away Fang as the US Consulate General in Chengdu did to Bo Xilai's security man Wang Lijun in 2012.

In 2012, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected Wang's asylum request and ejected him from the consulate compound into the arms of mainland security forces that had been waiting outside.

Hong Kong's Studentlocalism youngsters are not prominent dissidents like Fang. Had they been able to follow their peers and flee to Germany, Britain, Canada or the US, they would probably have been granted asylum.

But not in a foreign diplomatic mission.

Imagine what could have happened had they been allowed to hide in the US Consulate General. At best, negotiations would have had to start between Beijing and Washington, either for the group's freedom or their return to Hong Kong police to face charges in court.

At worst, the consulate compound would have been surrounded by police and mainland agents, with individuals not being allowed to leave or enter, or subjected to onerous body searches. And, worse still, nobody would know how long such a stand-off would last.

When Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge in Ecuador's embassy in London in 2012, he had no idea he would spend the following seven years hidden away from the world inside the embassy.

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