Hong Kong money is starting to flow into Australian real estate as wealthy families seek a safe haven from the Chinese enclave’s political turmoil. But relocation prospects are not so bright for activists who fear retaliation from Beijing.

Migration agents say there has been a flood of inquiries about Australian residency permits as the pro-democracy protests enter a fourth month, with most hoping to use business or investment visas to secure the permits.

“These are all people from Hong Kong of Chinese origin who are successful, established businesspeople,” Monika Tu, director of real estate agency Black Diamondz Group International, recently told the Domain website.

The rich are planning their exit strategies in case Beijing sends in the troops and the city’s economy goes pear-shaped. Australia is the most popular refuge because it is relatively close to Hong Kong and already has more than 1.2 million Chinese in residence, 6.5% of whom were born in Hong Kong.

In 2018, one-third of all people leaving Hong Kong settled in Australia, more than any other country worldwide. However, it may not offer a lifeline for those involved in the rolling political protests who don’t pass the wealth test.

Protesters place a Hong Kong British colonial flag in the Legislative Chamber after they broke into the building on July 1. Photo: Twitter

While Canberra famously handed out 40,000 visas to Chinese students after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre to protect them from any state retribution, it has so far shown much less enthusiasm for a Hong Kong scheme.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared in a radio interview that it was “not for us” to tell other countries how to run their affairs and it would be “premature” to talk about offering permanent residency to the 19,000 people from Hong Kong living in Australia, most of whom are students or tourists.

“I think what we have to do in this situation, as I’ve said all along, is to remain calm. We’re closely assessing the situation,” Morrison added.

Protest leaders met in Australia last week to seek assurances that Hong Kong students would be safe on campuses following clashes in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide between opposing pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps. Some students complained of death threats.

“We want to come here and give them support, and also to urge the Australian government to try to use a more assertive attitude to protect our students here in Australia,” said Sunny Cheung, a local protest leader.

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

Representatives of the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation, an umbrella group for universities, later met with Australian politicians. They reportedly want assurances that authorities will not force students to return home if they might be targeted over protest activities.

Some also want Australia to offer visas to activists in Hong Kong if China responds with force. However, migration is a sensitive subject for Morrison’s conservative government, as is its very touchy relationship with China.

The migration intake has been progressively tightened since a Liberal-Nationals coalition took power in 2013 and asylum seekers have been deterred by an uncompromising mix of detentions and boat pushbacks.

Changes in permanent migration that put priority on economic arrivals have slashed the intake from 190,000 in 2015-16 to a likely threshold of 160,000 this year.

Strict conditions on entry, including a requirement to live in regional centers, mean the actual 2019-20 intake may be closer to 150,000.

A woman walks by Chinese language advertisements for Australian property in Sydney's Chinatown on June 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/William West
A woman walks by Chinese language advertisements for Australian property in Sydney’s Chinatown on June 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/William West

Australia also accepts about 17,000 refugees per year, but only about a third are categorized as humanitarian arrivals or people “at risk.” These include 3,790 one-off visas for people displaced by conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Adding to the economic focus, Australia is also trying to implement a free trade agreement with Hong Kong, and is wary of any actions that might be seen as taking sides. Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on September 6 that the unrest should not be a reason for delaying the start of the trade deal.

Some legislators, however, don’t agree. The parliamentary treaties committee said the treatment of protestors would be a factor in its consideration of the FTA, which was signed in March but has not yet been ratified by Canberra.

“Of course we will watch very closely the developments in Hong Kong but I don’t think at this point in time it’s a reason for the treaties committee not to adjudicate on the FTA,” Payne said in response.

Chinese people wave Chinas and Australian national flags in Canberra, Australia in a file photo. Photo: AFP
Chinese people wave Chinese and Australian national flags in Canberra, Australia in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Canto pop star Denise Ho, who has also been in Australia trying to whip up support for the protest movement, cautioned that the country should not let economic factors cloud its judgment on respect for human rights.

“We see this power of China, and how they violate many common values. This power goes into the global communities, it’s very intimidating. Whether it’s governments or corporations, they silence themselves.

“When you see governments from different countries reluctant to voice their concerns, ignoring common values. Are we willing to accept this power taking over the different aspects of our lives?” she asked.