HONG KONG -- One day after four asylum seekers were reportedly turned away at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, the diplomatic mission in the Central district was under heavy guard.
"What are you doing here?" a security guard quickly approached and grilled this reporter standing close to the entrance on Wednesday.
Two photographers from Hong Kong media were also stationed near the consulate, ready to capture the entry of more asylum seekers, but the tightly closed doors gave little indication that it was ready to receive visitors without appointments.
China's crackdown on pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong has spurred many protesters to seek refuge in societies seen as freer, but many looking to the U.S. have had their entreaties rebuffed.
Tony Chung, the former leader of pro-independence group Studentlocalism, was detained at a coffee shop near the consulate at 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, according to a U.K. human rights group that was helping him make an asylum claim in the U.S. Chung was likely waiting there for the facility to open at 8:30.
Hong Kong police said Chung had been arrested under the new security law enacted by Beijing this year.
That afternoon, a South China Morning Post reporter saw four other people running up the street to the consulate and talking with security staff, reportedly in a bid to seek asylum. The four were initially allowed into the facility but apparently were ultimately turned away, and their current status remains unknown.
Washington as a rule does not accept asylum requests at foreign consulates, instead requiring would-be applicants to travel to the U.S. on their own. But these facilities have offered other forms of assistance to foreign nationals in danger. In a notable case related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing sheltered activist Fang Lizhi for a year before he was permitted to leave the country.
Lau Siu-kai of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a Chinese government-affiliated think tank, said that the U.S. is likely wary of being accused as the "black hands" behind Hong Kong's protests, offering support, encouragement and sponsorship.
"If the U.S. shelters these protesters, this will attract more people to seek political asylum," Lau told Nikkei Asia. "These protesters cannot leave without China's approval. Therefore, they will become a long-term political burden" for Washington, he said.
Beijing has been keeping a close eye out for connections between the consulate and pro-democracy activism. Lau said sheltering the protesters would "pose a threat to the presence of the U.S. Consulate" in Hong Kong.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stressed to reporters Wednesday that Hong Kong is part of China's internal affairs and that Beijing strongly opposes any foreign interference in the situation.
Both countries are in a political season, with top Chinese officials holding a key planning meeting in Beijing and the U.S. presidential election set for next week.
Washington under President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has taken an increasingly hard line toward refugees and asylum-seekers in general. The government said this month it is limiting the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. at 15,000 in fiscal 2021, an all-time low, citing the pandemic. The cap was cut to 18,000 last year, with fewer than 12,000 slots filled.
Many activists involved in last year's demonstrations have been charged with rioting and barred from leaving the country, giving those who want to get out little choice but to resort to drastic measures. In August, 12 protesters tried to flee secretly to Taiwan in a speedboat but were apprehended by Chinese authorities at sea and jailed on the mainland.
A growing number of activists who have been able to flee overseas are applying for asylum. A total of 181 Hong Kongers have submitted such requests in five countries including Australia, Canada and the U.K., according to the South China Morning Post. Australia alone had seen 136 this year as of September, a sharp increase from just 50 or so in 2018.
The trend of Hong Kong residents seeking freedom outside the territory has accelerated since the new security law took effect. A September survey of Hong Kongers by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that 44% of respondents would leave if they had the chance.
Additional reporting by Stella Wong in Hong Kong