Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's tone against China changed during his time in office. Photo: AFP / Getty

SYDNEY — Australia has backed away from granting safe haven to Hong Kong residents fleeing China’s repressive new security law after Beijing warned of a “bitter pill” for the Australian economy if Canberra interfered. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today [July 9] that Hong Kong people on temporary visas who are mostly already living in Australia will have their stay extended for five years, but there will be no refugee package.

“The refugee and humanitarian stream remains available for those seeking to apply through that channel, and that is available to people all around the world,” he said. His government capped the annual intake of refugees from all countries at 18,750 in a 2019 pre-election manifesto.

About 12,000 Hong Kong people are living in Australia, including 10,500 students, will be able to stay after their visas expire. Holders of skilled and graduate visas will have their visas extended for a further five years, and existing or future students can stay on for five years after they graduate; both groups will then be eligible to apply for permanent residency.

The fate of 5,000 other Hong Kong people in Australia, who are thought to be mostly tourists stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic, was not outlined in the announcement.

Morrison also said a new visa category would be created to attract skilled migrants from Hong Kong. If they have skills that are needed in Australia they will get an initial five-year visa as a pathway to permanent residency. 

Activists protest against Chinese government influence at the University of Queensland in Australia, July 2019. Photo: Twitter

His failure to offer a humanitarian package came hours after the Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times said that any moves by Canberra to resettle Hong Kong people would have a “huge negative impact” on the Australian economy and cause “immeasurable losses” to businesses.

“No one should underestimate the repercussions to the Australian economy from a further deterioration of bilateral ties. Anyone with knowledge of China-Australia trade could see that political provocations over the Hong Kong issue will only end up being a bitter pill for the country’s economy to swallow,” the website warned in an editorial.

Noting that the Hong Kong issue was “one of China’s bottom lines”, Global Times said there could be an impact on economic sectors like trade, investment, tourism and education. China is Australia’s biggest trade partner and its leading source of international students and tourists.

It is not clear whether Canberra’s reluctance to accept people directly from Hong Kong was linked to Global Times’ articulated threats or was a recognition of the practical issues posed by Covid-19 restrictions, including travel bans.

However, Morrison said Australia’s circumstances were different to those of the United Kingdom, which has said it will accept almost three million people from Hong Kong on restricted British passports. He said the UK, also criticized by China, had a historic obligation as Hong Kong’s former colonial master.

Meanwhile, Australia matched the UK’s decision to scrap an extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Morrison said it was an “acknowledgment of the fundamental change of circumstances in relation to Hong Kong” caused by the law, which critics say erodes judicial independence.

“In our view – and this is not just our view, it’s a shared view of many countries – that it undermines the One Country, Two Systems framework, and Hong Kong’s own basic law and the high degree of autonomy guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was set out there. 

The face of defiance as riot police detain a protester taking part in a rally against a new national security law in Hong Kong on July 1. Photo: AFP/Dale De La Ray

That is a matter of public record from Australia’s point of view,” he said.

Reacting to the law, which enables Beijing to try Hong Kong people in its own closed legal framework, Canberra issued an updated diplomatic advisory cautioning Australians against traveling to or living in the city.

“The full extent of the law and how it will be applied is not yet clear,” the advisory warned. “You may be at increased risk of detention on vaguely defined national security grounds. You could break the law without intending to. We advise [that you] do not travel to Hong Kong.”

There are an estimated 100,000 Australian nationals living in Hong Kong.

Vaguely worded and offering a sweeping mandate to security agencies, the new law applies penalties of up to life imprisonment and was imposed after months of protests in Hong Kong over China’s perceived political meddling.

Beijing said in response to the travel alert that “foreigners in China have absolutely nothing to worry about as long as they abide by the law.”