Hong Kong citizen protests
Hong Kong's 2014 'Umbrella Movement' protests (Image: Studio Incendo)

As China closes in on Hong Kong, crushing its democratic freedoms, an idea is gaining currency: limit China’s ability to have its own way by whisking the citizens of Hong Kong out from under them.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has written strongly in favour of America embracing Hongkongers, enthusing about “an alternative that would cause Beijing heartburn: offer Hong Kong’s people green cards to live and work in the US with a path to citizenship if they want”.

Vox wrote the idea up first: “If the United States wants to help the people of Hong Kong, it needs to think beyond sanctions and consider the role it has played time and again for victims of political repression abroad — open America’s borders and offer a place of refuge, freedom, and prosperity.”

Today, Britain has upped the ante. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is ready to offer the right to work and live in the UK to nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens eligible for a British National (Overseas) passport.

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All Hongkongers who were residents in July 1997, when the UK handed over control of HK to China, have access to a status of British National (Overseas), which already gives them some residency rights in the UK.

Australia could do it too. If there’s one idea that is popular at the moment, it’s sticking it to China. We may, in fact, have found the one context in which Australia would gladly take refugees.

The idea is economically sound. There is abundant evidence that skilled migrants are good for your economy. An influx of educated, wealthy Hong Kong citizens would be a boon for growth and job creation anywhere they chose to go to — at least in the long run. (An influx just now, amid high unemployment, might be temporarily unhelpful.)

So, should Australia do it?

Is Hong Kong people or land?

The risk is this would be totally ineffective foreign policy. It embodies an individualist view of HK, not a territorial view; an American view, not a Chinese view.

WSJ says: “This is the kind of Reaganesque move that would remind the world of America’s big heart and faith in freedom. It would certainly be heard in Beijing, which would watch in horror as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese took up the visa offers.”

Where does this idea come from — the idea that an outflow of the politically frustrated would represent a great pie in the face for Beijing? I’m not sure. China wants the territory, it doesn’t want the culture.

Look at Tibet. China has filled it with Han Chinese while Tibetans trickle out to India. The exact number of Han migrants is disputed, but according to some sources they now outnumber Tibetans. It’s a similar story in Xinjiang — China wants the territory and it doesn’t want the domestic opposition.

If China wanted to keep the Hong Kong it has now, it would not be introducing new oppressive national security laws. China wants a compliant HK. The downside risk of losing a few HSBC middle managers and the human capital they represent is hardly enough for the Communist Party to check its vast and ancient territorial ambitions.

Entrepreneurism and spark

One of the ideas that is exciting to the Americans seems to be stealing Hong Kong’s wealthy and entrepreneurial people.

This idealises the individual at the heart of the economic story. China will be far less excited about the individual economic vibrancy of HK’s citizenry than the WSJ editorial board. China doesn’t give a damn about individuals.

Many Hong Kong citizens left around 1989 following the atrocities in Tiananmen Square and that hardly made a lick of difference. What’s more, unlike in 1989, China now has a successful economic model. It knows it can take over Hong Kong and keep GDP ticking upward.

What about the unintended consequences of an Hong Kong exodus? It would mostly make life easier for Beijing. It reminds me of concerned parents leaving the public education system, reducing the political will to offer great public education.

China might like Hong Kong far more without troublesome democratic expectations. They can tell the citizens: “If you don’t like it, leave.”

Ultimately, this idea is a window into the kinds of dispute that China and the west will have over the next decades — asymmetric ones, where each side misunderstands what the other side truly values.

But this asymmetry of values should also offer opportunities. What China wants and what the West wants are not always diametrically opposed — they are asymmetrically opposed.

There are opportunities for compromises and win-win outcomes — if we have the skill and understanding to find them.