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Transatlantic Blog

'Little England' comes to Hong Kong's rescue

As U.S. cities seek to rebuild from chaos, Hong Kong continues to resist the imposition of order—a draconian order emanating from Beijing that will crush freedom of thought and expression. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has intervened with an historic proposal: He would allow nearly half the citizens of Hong Kong to immigrate to the UK.

The proposal comes after the National People’s Congress approved a security law that would allow the People’s Republic of China to establish security teams in Hong Kong and punish acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism.” Hong Kong’s legislature signaled the shape of things to come on June 4, as it rubber-stamped a law punishing anyone who disrespects the Chinese national anthem with three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450 U.S.).

Should the security law take effect, Johnson warned, “Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away; instead we will honour our obligations and provide an alternative.”

The prime minister sketched out the details in an op-ed published simultaneously in the Times and the South China Morning Post:

Today, about 350,000 of the territory’s people hold British National Overseas passports and another 2.5 million would be eligible to apply for them. At present, these passports allow visa-free access to the United Kingdom for up to six months.

If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship.

This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history. If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly.

By offering British citizenship to 3 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million citizens, Johnson’s proposal would virtually empty the island. The population is braced to leave its homeland, which the UK relinquished to Beijing in 1997.

Applications for immigration documents increased 60% in December 2019 over the previous year. Emigration specialists say they’ve seen a spike of Hong Kong residents ready to invest any amount of money to gain legal residence in Taiwan or Australia, as long as they can flee the island “super fast.”

Beijing moved quickly to scuttle the offer. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused Johnson of suffering from a “Cold War and colonialist mentality.” Such loaded charges have ping-ponged back and forth from China to the Western Left, although it’s unclear who is echoing whom.

This Conservative prime minister would offer citizenship to as many immigrants as Labour granted residence during its 13 years in power. Experts insisted such a turn of events would be impossible because of Brexit. In 2017, The Daily Beast derided Leave voters as the stormtroopers of a “hateful Little England.” These “hijackers” of the Tories are “a noisome and virulent strain of nativism” that despises London’s “social diversity, its cultural exoticism … and most of all its un-Englishness.”

The author named their ringleader as “the man who more than any other politician was responsible for the Brexit campaign’s narrow win in the July [June 23, 2016] referendum: Boris Johnson.”

Inviting 40% of population of an Asian province to settle in the UK seems like a peculiar form of nativism, indeed.

Remainers have insisted for almost four years that Brexit coasted across the electoral finish line on the fumes of racism. Leavers have suffered the full brunt of their own society’s moral opprobrium ever since. This was a shallow and self-serving analysis that did not reflect the diverse concerns motivating the British majority and a particularly slanderous reading of Johnson, who was conspicuously more favorable toward immigration than his predecessor, Theresa May. Inviting 40% of population of an Asian province to settle in the UK seems like a peculiar form of nativism, indeed.

The emigration of Hong Kong’s banking elite would cement the City of London as the world’s leading provider of financial services. Hong Kong has fallen to the world’s sixth largest financial services hub since the Chinese crackdown. Even partial consolidation with London would overwhelm Wall Street.

Hong Kong refugees could also reorient British politics and foreign policy. As Cuban exiles have become Florida’s most dependable, and most conservative voting bloc, Hong Kongers’ personal testimony could make the UK more critical of Chinese human rights abuses—and those who overlook them, including the EU.

By contrast, what has the supranationalists’ favorite institution, the European Union, done? It postponed a summit with China—citing the coronavirus rather than political oppression. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has ruled out further confrontation on the member states’ behalf. The Schengen Area, which Angela Merkel gladly threw open for Syrian migrants, remains closed to Chinese dissidents. It has fallen to the newly independent UK to provide an escape hatch. Why is that? What makes the UK different?

The UK shows the reality that pursuing liberty anywhere advances liberty everywhere. The UK freed itself from the undemocratic structure and stultifying regulations of the EU; it seeks to spare Hong Kong a worse fate. As a nation properly recognizes the anthropology of humanity, which is “made for freedom,” its leaders begin to respect the inestimable, God-given human dignity of every person. National policy begins to reflect this eternal truth. Aristotle explained how habit ingrains itself into character, which holds true for a nation, as well.

Such an example may be seen in Estonian leader Mari-Ann Kelam, who led the global movement to win Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union—but who also supported every anti-Communist liberation movement (and still does). Mari-Ann told me in an interview for the Acton Institute’s podcast that she engaged in decades of tireless activism, in the phrase of former Czech statesman Václav Havel, “for your freedom and ours.”

However one might question the practicality or advisability of Boris Johnson’s proposal to swell the UK’s population by 5% in one fell swoop, it is a nod in the same direction.

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Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.