When the British ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was with express assurance from China that Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and democratic way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years. The resultant “one country, two systems” allowed Hong Kong to flourish as a global economic center that attracted thousands of expats, including many Americans, and oriented the territory significantly more to the west than mainland China.

You’ve probably heard by now that life in Hong Kong is very different these days. Under the vague guise of “national security”, China’s totalitarian regime moved in 2020 to impose total control over Hong Kong, stripping the territory and its residents virtually overnight of the freedoms from censorship, arbitrary deprivation of human rights, and judicial transparency they had long enjoyed, and imposing draconian new restrictions on protests and anything else seen as “pro-western”.

Images beamed around the world in recent months show the iron first of the Chinese Communist Party at work. Peaceful protestors, dissident bloggers, and opposition lawmakers have all been arrested by authorities on nebulous charges like “picking quarrels” and “stirring up trouble”. Many have faced sham trials and been sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for their purported crimes.

Clearance Holders and Unrest in Hong Kong

All of this has left some U.S. security clearance holders with relatives, property, or other financial interests in Hong Kong facing a different kind of peril. While the territory enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from mainland China, U.S. security officials generally considered clearance holder ties to Hong Kong to pose less of a foreign influence risk than the same relatives or assets in mainland China. Now, that distinction has all but evaporated. Both new security clearance applicants and long-time clearance-holders are suddenly facing a new reality – that their previously-benign foreign ties pose a heightened risk to U.S. national security – and scrambling to adjust accordingly.

Examples of Fallout and Risk Mitigation

Rather than risk a security clearance denial, one recent client with dual-citizen parents living in Hong Kong opted to place his application for a security clearance on hold until his parents were able to close the sale of their apartment in Hong Kong and return to the United States. Another with extended family and a bank account in Hong Kong was advised by her agency to immediately close the bank account and minimize contact with family members or risk the potential for a clearance revocation. And still another who had previously been allowed to maintain a Hong Kong identification card for ease of travel opted to voluntarily relinquish the card to U.S. security officials in the interest of heading off unwelcome scrutiny.

Each of these clearance-holders or applicants, and undoubtedly many more with similar stories, are struggling to accept this sudden turn of misfortune. In doing so, they are facing a fact of life that applicants with mainland China ties have been forced to confront for years: any ties to China – whether familial, social, financial, or otherwise – pose an often-insurmountable barrier to obtaining a security clearance because of the very real potential that they could be leveraged against the clearance holder by the Chinese government for espionage purposes.

What Foreign Influence Means

If events in Hong Kong have impacted you, understand first that you’re not alone. It is an emotional time for many Americans with family in Hong Kong. Then, understand what foreign influence risk is and isn’t. Foreign influence risk does not mean that the U.S. government is questioning your patriotism or loyalty. Rather, it is the concern that the clearance holder may unintentionally succumb to pressure exerted by a foreign government to act against U.S. interests in the form of a “do this or else” type of scenario – and an assessment of the odds that such a scenario ever presents itself.

An example of this type of scenario is “spy for us or we’ll arrest your relative”. Another is “carry out our wishes or we’ll confiscate your property or bank account here.” Unfortunately, the Chinese government is no stranger to these sorts of coercive espionage attempts; the assumption, until proven otherwise, is that they will try it and you will succumb.

Path Ahead for Clearance Holders with Ties to Hong Kong

There are ways to fight these assumptions which, in part, can include a demonstration that your ties to the United States – familial, social, financial, professional, etc. – significantly outweigh the concerning ties abroad, thereby making it unlikely that you would ever risk the life you have built here by committing treason. Nonetheless, when it comes to China, it’s often a tough sell to U.S. security officials. The best advice I can give anyone under the circumstances is to get their loved ones and assets out of Hong Kong while the getting is still nominally good.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://berrylegal.com.