HONG KONG — Tony Chung had been planning his asylum bid for weeks. He had sent an application to Washington earlier this month, the advocacy group helping him with the process said, and he hoped he could soon resettle in the United States.
But Chung — a founder of a pro-independence student group in Hong Kong who was among the first to be arrested under Beijing’s new national security law imposed in late June — was growing nervous ahead of a scheduled check at a police station, part of his bail terms.
So on Tuesday, Chung and four other Hong Kong activists sought to reach the U.S. Consulate in hopes of speeding up the process, according to the London-based advocacy group Friends of Hong Kong and local media reports.
Chung, 19, was apprehended by several men and taken away before he could reach the consulate gates, a video of the incident obtained by the South China Morning Post showed. The other four — a United States citizen among them, according to Friends of Hong Kong — briefly entered the consulate later that afternoon, but had their request for refuge inside the compound rebuffed and they were turned away.
Two other former members of Chung’s group, studentlocalism, were separately arrested on Tuesday.
The scenes underscored the desperation of Hong Kong protesters and activists in the city, who fear political persecution and unfair trials. It also raises questions on why the United States consulate in Hong Kong would have turned away an American citizen appealing for help.
The U.S. Department of State and the United States consulate in Hong Kong did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The United States does not grant asylum in diplomatic consulates and embassies abroad, but in very rare occasions has protected Chinese activists at the embassy in Beijing. It is also rare for the United States to grant refuge inside its other diplomatic compounds around the world.
The Hong Kong police said they had arrested three people between the ages of 19 and 21 on Tuesday, and have released two on police bail, without naming them. A 19 year-old remains in custody, police said. The Hong Kong police declined to comment further on the asylum seekers, referring The Washington Post instead to the Security Bureau, a government department.
A representative for the Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to request for comment, but the government has previously objected to decisions by Western countries to grant asylum consideration to Hong Kong residents, saying there is “no question of political persecution” in the city.
Friends of Hong Kong, which describes itself as defending “rights, freedom and democracy” in Hong Kong, said Chung reached out to them in October, wishing to petition the United States government for asylum. The group spoke to The Post on the condition that the other four who sought refuge at the consulate were not named. The Post was unable to independently reach them or Chung.
Chung was arrested in July shortly after Beijing passed a new national security law in Hong Kong, designed to put an end to the political unrest and street protests last year by punishing broadly-worded crimes like “terrorism” and “secession” with up to life in prison. He was accused of posting a message on social media that advocated for Hong Kong to be independent from China, along with three other former members of studentlocalism, the group he helped found.
Chung described his arrest as politically motivated.
The other four people who attempted to enter the U.S. Consulate were not members of studentlocalism, the group said in a social media post. According to Friends of Hong Kong, who was similarly helping them with their asylum bid, the other four had all been arrested in connection with anti-government protests in Hong Kong that began last June and all have impending court trials on a range of charges. One among them was a U.S. citizen.
The national security law, and the fear it has caused among Hong Kong activists, have prompted Western countries and Taiwan to put in place assistance programs and so-called lifeboat policies for residents of the financial center hoping to flee.
Countries including Germany, Australia, the United States and Canada have recently granted asylum requests from Hong Kong residents, angering Beijing.
The United States, in particular, risks further deterioration in the relationship with China over the issue. Many activists favor asylum in the United States, perceiving the Trump administration as broadly backing the goals of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement after it signed legislation that opened the door to sanctions against those who had undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Eleven Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, were sanctioned in August for restricting Hong Kong’s freedoms and undermining the territory’s autonomy, and president Trump has ended the territory’s special status which allowed it to be treated separately from the Chinese mainland.
In July, the United States was forced to close its consulate in Chengdu, amid escalation U.S.-China tensions. Chinese state newspaper the Global Times in a tweet warned that the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong could face a similar fate if it were to start granting asylum to Hong Kong residents from its premises in the city. There is no indication that the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong was processing asylum requests or that it plans to offer protection for Hong Kong activists.
The United States Embassy in Beijing has on very rare occasions shielded Chinese activists, including astrophysicist and pro-democracy advocate Fang Lizhi, who was allowed to travel to Britain in 1990 after a year at the embassy.