In 1945, Hong Kong had an income per head less than a quarter that of its “Mother Country”. By the time of the 1997 handover, what had been a fishing and farming outpost, was transformed into a vibrant metropolis, with GDP per capita equal to the UK.
Since then, under the “one country, two systems” agreement, Hong Kong has become richer still, its population now 40pc richer than their British counterparts. But all that is threatened now that Beijing has enacted Hong Kong’s national security law.
Designed to smother a legal system widely admired for respecting individual rights and commercial freedom, these draconian measures are a clear breach of an Anglo-Chinese treaty meant to last until 2047.
Commercial leaders kow-tow to Beijing, hailing “stability” – given the brutal clampdown on pro-democracy campaigners. On cue, since China turned the screw in late June, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng stock index has dutifully soared. But investors are now in retreat, as concerns grow that local commerce could be stymied. Increasingly heavy Chinese influence will sully Hong Kong’s reputation for commercial arbitration and broader legal impartiality, dissuading international investors.
By deepening links between government and big business – particularly Hong Kong’s property conglomerates – Beijing’s power-grab will restrict competition and keep living costs high, undermining the entrepreneurial drive which built this astonishing city state.
Any form of independent media, including social media, is on borrowed time, as is the security of Hong Kong’s cloud data storage – further hitting the business environment. And genuine democracy is out of the question.
Boris Johnson’s government has come in for a lot of stick lately – and not without justification. The UK’s response to this coronavirus pandemic has, at best, been patchy. But the government deserves credit for it’s how it has acted towards China – after the People’s Republic initially covered up the “Wuhan virus” and then, amid the resulting global chaos, tore up its “one country, two systems” pledge.
Johnson’s reaction was that Britain would “uphold our profound ties of history and friendship with Hong Kong’s people”. The government has now rightly proposed a route to UK residency for the 300,000 Hong Kong Chinese holding British National (Overseas) passports, issued before the 1997 handover, which currently give them six-month visitation rights. Such rights may extend to another 1.8 million Hong Kong residents eligible for BN(O) passports.
It’s right the UK has woken up to reality and will no longer risk the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei having effective control of our fibreoptic communications network. This was always a threat to both commercial and national security.
But we should now go further, facilitate the creation of “New Hong Kong” – or NHK – a low-tax, outward-looking city right here in the UK. Let’s invite a wave of industrious English-speaking people, among the most entrepreneurial in the world, to build an outpost of Asian drive and know-how within Britain, allowing them to prosper within our shores. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary ideas – and this is an idea worth examining.
If NHK was located outside the South East, it could form a major part of the UK’s “levelling up” regional development drive – even more urgent given the cruelly uneven economic impact of this covid crisis. The Johnson government is already planning bold regional tax breaks and other localised regulatory changes, permitted due to Brexit, not least the creation of a string of freeports.
NHK, then, could be the centrepiece of a free port programme, designed to spread prosperity beyond London and the South East. Britain is the most regionally unbalanced economy in Europe. The citizens of NHK would bring considerable wealth with them, channelling their own capital into the creation of a new coastal city – either in the North West or North East of England.
The UK anyway needs to embark on a house-building boom – it is ludicrous we haven’t built a major new settlement since 1970, despite a 20pc rise in our population over the last half century. Again, the construction of NHK, which could be populated half and half with Hong Kong Chinese and “locals”, could form a key part of the residential building drive that is so vital to reboot our post-covid economy.
NHK could also benefit from and showcase new regulations designed to encourage house building now being discussed within government. These include the creation of Local Development Corporations that will facilitate land value capture to fund the construction of local infrastructure and the provision of more affordable building plots – a well-established mechanism in use across the world, that helped build post-war Hong Kong.
The idea that “Britain is full” is nonsense – residential homes cover less than 2pc of England’s land mass and NHK would, like the original, be high-density. And, it cannot be stated enough that Britain is one of the world’s most tolerant nations when it comes to welcoming immigration.
Yes, there was alarm among many low-income communities, as uncontrolled numbers of unskilled EU migrants arrived during the years ahead of the Brexit vote, given their impact on wages and the demand for scarce public services. But with “freedom of movement” rules now scrapped, public confidence in our borders can be rebuilt. And attitudes towards highly skilled migrants – with their own capital and a demonstrable ability to create wealth and employment for the broader country – are likely to be far more positive.
Amid this new and justifiable scepticism towards China, establishing NHK would be a striking illustration of the Government’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda. While helping to reaffirm the UK’s status as a multicultural society, it would boost our economy while demonstrating to the world we are open for business.
Faced with aggression from Beijing, Hong Kong’s talented, asset-rich diaspora will end up scattering – joining established communities in Vancouver, Sydney, US cities and elsewhere. The world’s most advanced countries will soon be competing to attract them. Surely a sizeable chunk should come to Britain?
How churlish, insular and anti-business would Britain look if, over a period of a few years, several hundred thousand Hong Kong exiles didn’t make their home here? It’s the right thing to do – and would be to our mutual economic benefit.
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