Its special status is ending. There are riots and protests. And taxes have been raised to 45pc for professionals working partly on the mainland, a blow for a territory famous for its 15pc flat rate. Step by step, China is clamping down on Hong Kong and one of the world’s freest, most prosperous city states is in deep trouble. In response, the UK has – quite rightly – offered full residency rights to holders of British national overseas passports, respecting the pledges we made when colonial rule came to an end in 1997.
But hold on. We need to offer more than just a potential escape route. In truth, these are not refugees we are talking about. These are some of the hardest working, best educated, most entrepreneurial people on the planet, with fantastic connections across the fastest-growing region in the world.
We shouldn’t assume many of them necessarily want to come to a slightly rainy island, with an almost bankrupt government, where you hardly ever see a junk in the harbour, and it is difficult to get any decent dim sum outside of WC1.
Instead, we should be crafting a package of tax breaks and liberalisation that persuades them this is the country to move to.
Why? Because Hong Kong’s energetic hustlers could be a huge boost for the British economy – and we’d be lucky to have them.
Boris Johnson’s government may not have got everything right, to put it mildly, but it has handled the Hong Kong issue in completely the right way. There is not much we can do about China’s aggressive move to bring the territory under tight central control. It is a long way away, and China too powerful a foe.
But the decision to offer holders of British national overseas passports, held by about three million of the territory’s residents, full rights to live and work in this country was absolutely correct. It is not always the case that moral duty and economic self-interest are completely compatible. But this is one example.
We should help those people. And in doing so, we will be helping our economy as well – which is kind of a bonus.
There is a catch, however. We shouldn’t assume we are automatically first choice for anyone who wants to get out of Hong Kong. Or even second, third or fourth. These are not refugees, nor are they in any way comparable to the Poles and Hungarians in 2000 who swapped a relatively poor country for a far richer one. Hong Kong’s per capita GDP ($48,600; £38,820) is well above ours ($42,900) and its educational standards are significantly higher. If they want to leave, they will have options. In truth, we should be crafting a package that makes this the most desirable place to come.
In fairness, the Government has started on that: Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is reported to be working on an offer to younger Hong Kongers born after 1997. But we could go a lot further. Like how? Here are three places we could start.
First, we could create a special five-year tax break for British national overseas passport holders, with the same 15pc flat rate they are used to in Hong Kong. Sure, there will be plenty of people who will complain that it’s unfair. But in practise, it wouldn’t be very different from the old non-dom rule that offered a break to people who weren’t British citizens (and it would be less generous than that rule was).
True, they would be paying less than someone on the same street that happened to be born here. And yet the tax revenue they generate at 15pc would be extra money for the Treasury that it wouldn’t otherwise have. After all, it is hard to see many of the territory’s business community swapping their flat taxes for our 45pc top rate, especially when there are so many other places they can go.
Next, we should create a freeport that specifically aims to replicate Hong Kong. The Government is already planning on creating a series of deregulated trading zones, common throughout the world, to operate after our transition agreement with the European Union has ended. One of them could simply cut and paste Hong Kong’s laws, taxes and regulations into what would in effect be an HK 2.0.
To make it even more attractive, incorporation could be moved directly across from the territory to the freeport, and visas could be offered to staff without BNO passports. Even better, if it was in a relatively poor area – Wales perhaps, or the North East – it would regenerate a whole region.
Finally, there is nothing the Hong Kongers care about more than educating their children. It varies slightly by university and course, but right now BNO citizens usually have to pay the far higher overseas student fees in this country, rather than the flat-rate £9,250 British students are charged.
If anyone can think of a good reason for that – other than paying a few vice-chancellors’ extravagant salaries – they are keeping it to themselves. We should offer them the same deal that British students get so long as they are resident here.
If we want to make the open “global Britain” version of Brexit a reality, there is no better place to start than with a generous offer to anyone who wants to leave Hong Kong. But we need to do more than just grudgingly allow them in. The Home Office estimates right now that 200,000 Hong Kongers might come to the UK.
In reality, it should be far, far more than that. But to make that happen, we need to offer the best deal possible – because every extra person who takes it up will help the country prosper.