London doesn’t have the power to push the corrupt little junta in Beijing into being halfway decent to the people of Hong Kong, but Boris Johnson has a bold solution for almost half of those people: Come to the United Kingdom.
Hong Kong is a former British territory, and about 3 million of its 7.5 million residents hold or are eligible for a limited kind of British passport (the “British national overseas” passport issued to those born in Hong Kong before the territory was relinquished to China in 1997) that entitles them to travel to the United Kingdom but not to permanently reside or work there. As Beijing prepares to implement in Hong Kong a robust version of the totalitarianism it practices everywhere else in China — in contravention of its agreement with the British requiring the Chinese government to honor Hong Kong’s liberty and democracy — Johnson says that his government, bound by “our profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong,” will allow all of those 3 million Hong Kongers the option of coming to the United Kingdom with the British version of a green card (renewable legal residency and permission to work) and a path to full citizenship for those who desire it.
This is an almost heroic proposal. It is also a smart one.
The United Kingdom is an astonishingly inventive and productive nation, and it punches above its weight both economically and, especially, culturally. But Hong Kong has long practiced a kind of supercharged version of British economic liberalism, and its people are even more productive than the British, with a GDP per capita about 15 percent higher than the United Kingdom’s. You don’t have a rich, smart, productive country without rich, smart, productive people, and Johnson is proposing to roll out the red carpet for 3 million of them.
Because of Brexit, Johnson often is numbered among the recently ascendant right-wing populists, but while his European counterparts (and, unhappily, many of his American counterparts) rail against immigration and immigrants, Johnson’s government would welcome a new group of immigrants who would by themselves equal about 4.5 percent of the current U.K. population.
During the Cold War, defectors from the Eastern bloc were symbols of the fundamental difference between the free world and the unfree world, and people of good will cheered when some daring person successfully made it over the Berlin Wall. But the men and women fleeing the brutality of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany could do so only because there was a West Berlin for them to run to. Boris Johnson proposes that the United Kingdom play that role for the people of Hong Kong who are being oppressed by a government that in too many ways practices an updated version of socialism as it actually existed only a few decades ago, as opposed to the socialism of 10,000 dorm-room philosophers.
Beijing is infuriated. The Chinese government accuses the United Kingdom of “interfering in China’s internal affairs.” But Beijing is bound by the Sino–British Joint Declaration regarding the liberty of Hong Kong, so the U.K. is not crashing the party. Johnson’s government does not have the force to change Beijing’s internal affairs, but it does have the power to make 3 million Hong Kong residents external affairs.
Washington does, too. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) the Senate majority leader, already has suggested that the United States implement something like what Johnson’s government is doing. “Our nation has a rich heritage of standing as a beacon of light and freedom, from refugees of war to those escaping the Iron Curtain,” McConnell said. “We should exercise it again for the people of Hong Kong.”
Some of our neo-Malthusian friends will insist that there is no room in the United States for these immigrants, that we are all full up, that there aren’t enough jobs to go around as it is. But consider this: In the 1940s, Hong Kong was one of the poorest places in the world, hungry, depopulated, and war-ravaged. With very little in the way of natural resources, and starting without a great deal of modern infrastructure, Hong Kong grew to become the wealthiest city in the world. If Hong Kong were an independent country (and why not? It works for Singapore), it would be one of the world’s wealthiest, a little ahead of the United States and just a step behind Switzerland. The people of Hong Kong did that with very little other than liberty, the rule of law, and a reasonably good location as a port. Why shouldn’t those people thrive in the United States, with its abundant blessings? They can expect to thrive in the United Kingdom.
The loss of liberty in Hong Kong is a jolting, unwelcome reminder that history does not move in one direction only, toward progress and human flourishing. Perhaps the city cannot be saved, for now. But the British proposal is both an act of practical aid and a splendid gesture. For the moment, it may be that the best that can be done is for the free world to declare that the people of Hong Kong live where freedom lives.