Pro-Democracy Exiles from China Drawn to Australia

Many people from mainland China and Hong Kong have found a haven south of the equator in Australia to work, study and seek refuge.

“Australia is (an) extremely beautiful, multicultural democracy,” said Feng Chongyi.

Originally from China, Feng is a university professor in Sydney. In 2020, China’s state media Global Times accused him of being an Australia spy, alluding to a 2017 trip back to China when Feng was questioned by authorities. Feng refutes the accusation and told the South China Morning Post it’s part of China’s “propaganda machine.” He describes Australia as a paradise for intellectual freedom.

“The 1980s generations like me were brought up to believe in democracy,” he said.

In 1989, he witnessed Beijing’s violent crackdown on the pro-democracy student movement at Tiananmen Square.

“I came here to escape China,” Feng said.

Feng Chongyi, a China studies professor in Sydney, describes Australia as a paradise for intellectual freedom. (VOA News)

Feng Chongyi, a China studies professor in Sydney, describes Australia as a paradise for intellectual freedom. (VOA News)

Fatima Abdulghafur also left China to seek freedom. She was born in the place she knows as East Turkistan. China calls it Xinjiang.

“When I left China, it’s definitely because I saw I could be forever a slave,” said Abdulghafur.

She is alluding to China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority group, where human rights groups say more than 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in camps.

“My father was also taken to the camp,” said Abdulghafur. “My brother was taken to the camp.”

Abdulghafur says her father died in a camp. Marriage brought her to Australia after she lived in the United States.

More than 650,000 Chinese-born immigrants live in Australia, making them the third most populous group behind people from England and India. That does not include people from Taiwan or Hong Kong, who also live in cities such as Sydney. Many are too afraid to speak to VOA.

“Because they (Chinese government) do have very strong leverage, leverage (because) their family members (are) still in China,” said Feng. “They’re scared.”

For Hong Kong residents, Australia will provide pathways to permanent residency beginning next March. The new programs stem from an Australian commitment to Hong Kong shortly after Beijing implemented the national security law, which was a response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests, but critics say it limits free speech. Chinese state media say the law is aimed at protecting citizens.

Feng says over the years in Sydney, he’s seen differences of attitudes between older members of the Chinese diaspora, who support more Western views, and the more recent Chinese immigrants, who express strong, patriotic views about their home country.

“In 2008, it’s a sea change, change to opposite,” said Feng. “The Chinese students and Chinese immigrants again come out on the streets, but this time to support (the) Chinese government and suppress the Chinese democracy movement.”

But that may be part of the allure of Australia for immigrants like Feng and Abdulghafur – it offers freedom for people to openly express their views.

“When I left China, it's definitely because I saw I could be forever a slave. ”

Fatima Abdulghafur, Uyghur living in Sydney


WRITER, PRODUCER: Elizabeth LeeCONTRIBUTOR: Phil MercerVIDEOGRAPHER: Roger Maynard Post-production coordinator: Marcus Harton

About this series

From 2010-2020, U.N. Refugee Agency reported a consistent increase in the number of asylum-seekers from China totaling more than 630,000 people. Separately, the number of asylum-seekers from Hong Kong jumped dramatically, from 22 in 2018 to a record 487 people in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Asylum-seekers are just one part of the China exodus story, as people from China and Hong Kong emigrate in other ways, as well. This project examines why people left and where they have resettled.