The UK must act decisively to protect Hongkongers

Ben Ramanauskas

August 7, 2019

The ongoing situation in Hong Kong is turning into a tragedy for the people and the city itself. Over the past few months, the Chinese government has attempted to tighten its grip on the territory, riding roughshod over the principle of “one country, two systems”.

This principle, proposed by Deng Xiaoping, stated that there would be one nation of China, but regions such as Hong Kong would be able to retain their own economic and administrative systems.

Under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the region is entitled to keep its economic, legal, and legislative system, as well as its own currency. 

Putting to one side the issue of colonialism and the troubling nature as to how Hong Kong became a colony of the UK, the city and its people did enjoy many benefits under (and often despite) British rule.

For example, citizens of Hong Kong were afforded protections such as human rights and the rule of law, which citizens of mainland China were deprived of.

What’s more, they enjoyed levels of economic growth which people in other countries, including the UK, could only dream of. Financial secretary Sir John Cowperthwaite, an avowed free marketeer, introduced low and stable taxes and ensured that Hong Kong’s markets were open to trade and investment. 

Sir John’s policies transformed Hong Kong from a city scarred by Japanese occupation during the second world war into an economic powerhouse.

After the territory was returned to China in 1997, the people of Hong Kong have continued to enjoy many of these benefits, as do all people who live in places where there is political and economic freedom.

Under the treaty returning Hong Kong to China, these rights were set to continue until 2047. The situation, however, looks likely to deteriorate well before then.

So, the obvious question is: what should be done about it? Given the historic ties between the UK and Hong Kong, and the fact that many of the protestors are calling on the British government to help, we do have a responsibility to act.

The British government must firmly remind the Chinese government of its treaty obligations to Hong Kong and should continue to exert diplomatic pressure on it.

Diplomacy aside, the UK should offer the people of Hong Kong the right to live, work, and study here.

First, there is the moral case. Like all countries, the UK has an obligation to offer asylum to people facing oppression in their home country. Faced with the fact that the people of Hong Kong are seeing their civil liberties eroded and those who dare to protest are facing a draconian crackdown, it is only right that all countries offer asylum to Hongkongers.

And given our historic ties with Hong Kong and the nature of its return to China, we owe a specific obligation to protect the rights of the people of Hong Kong.

We should, however, go beyond merely granting asylum to the people of Hong Kong. Our asylum system is disgraceful and often leaves individuals unable to work. We should instead grant any citizen of Hong Kong the immediate right to study or work in the UK.

Second, there is the political argument. Free-market capitalism has proven to be the most effective way to generate wealth and eliminate poverty. As such, we should ensure that free market policies are implemented in the UK.

Just imagine a situation in which migrants from Hong Kong have grown up enjoying the many benefits of free markets as well as the evils of socialist oppression.

They would bring these experiences with them to the UK and vote accordingly, providing an unprecedented opportunity to shift the political balance in favour of free market capitalism.

Finally, there are the economic benefits. There is a clear consensus among economists that immigration is economically beneficial to destination countries. They help to plug skills gaps, increase productivity, and increase economic growth. As such, immigration should be welcome from any country. 

However, we should place an even higher value on immigration from Hong Kong. Hongkongers are highly educated and trained, and so possess an unprecedented level of human capital.

And it has long been recognised that human capital is incredibly important for economic growth. As Adam Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations

“Fourthly, of the acquired and useful abilities of all the inhabitants or members of the society. The acquisition of such talents, by the maintenance of the acquirer during his education, study, or apprenticeship, always costs a real expense, which is a capital fixed and realised, as it were, in his person. Those talents, as they make a part of his fortune, so do they likewise that of the society to which he belongs. The improved dexterity of a workman may be considered in the same light as a machine or instrument of trade which facilitates and abridges labour, and which, though it costs a certain expense, repays that expense with a profit.”

As such, the UK should welcome highly educated and skilled migrants with open arms. Immigration from Hong Kong to the UK will help to plug the skill gap in this country and will increase productivity and economic growth.

The unfolding situation in Hong Kong is a tragedy for its people, but it reminds us of the power of free markets to bring economic growth and prosperity. It also reminds us of the responsibility we have to stand up for liberty across the world – especially the liberty of those over whom we used to rule.

Now is the time for the UK to take a stand and open our arms to Hongkongers.


Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University and a former adviser to the International Trade Secretary.


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