One issue that has slipped under the public’s radar as we try to contain the pandemic is how Hong Kong’s once free society has been crushed by China just eight months after the passage of the infamous Beijing-backed national security law.
The law makes dissent from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) program a criminal offense. Under the law, a Hong Konger can be extradited to mainland China, convicted in a show trial in the Chinese courts that do not adhere to basic precepts of rule of law, and then “be disappeared” for the rest of their lives in a Chinese prison.
As the rest of the world has focused on the virus, Beijing has used this law to crack down on pro-democracy leaders, already arresting dozens. The CCP hasn’t rolled in the tanks like when they massacred thousands of protestors in Tiananmen Square, but the national security law has succeeded in creating a chilling effect that has sown fear in the public.
Given the military, economic, and geopolitical clout of China, neither soft nor hard power interventions are viable response options. The most substantive action thus far has been from the British, who have offered a path to citizenship to over 5 million Hong Kongers. America should immediately do the same. However, we should also take even bolder action.
Faced with the threat of annihilation by the Alaskan Bull Worm, SpongeBob Squarepants character Patrick Star suggested he and his fellow citizens, “Take Bikini Bottom and push it somewhere else!” What if faced with the threat of the CCP, we adopted this strategy and helped push Hong Kong somewhere else?
More specifically, what if the US recreated Hong Kong as a special economic zone with a charter city? A charter city is a city granted special autonomy to implement a new governance system. Hong Kong itself is a special economic zone, which is an area within a country that has different economic regulations typically more conducive to growth and innovation, that exemplifies what the US should try to build. In 1950, Hong Kong was under British supervision and had a free-market capitalist system while mainland China entered rule by Mao Zedong’s CCP. According to Our World In Data, their per capita GDPs were $4,013 and $757, respectively. By 1980, Hong Kong’s GDP per capita quadrupled to $16,216.
Over the same period China’s communist system led to GDP per capita of $1,690 and the deaths of between 20 million and 60 million people in the Great Famine, the worst man-made disaster in human history.
In 2016 Hong Kong still had one of the most free economies in the world and GDP per capita of $47,043, while China was at just $12,320, and that is only after the CCP instituted Hong Kong-style free market reforms in their own special economic zones in the 1980s. The US government should learn from this example and create a charter city for Hong Kong refugees.
We even have a perfect location to build this charter city: Guantanamo Bay.
President Biden has already stated his desire to close the terrorist prison we have located there. With approximately 45 square miles under US control and a suitable harbor, replacing the prison with a charter city is an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to compromise and repurpose the infrastructure already in place to help refugees escaping CCP oppression.
If one percent of Hong Kong’s population moved to this charter city there would be a starting population of around 75,000 people. The requisite level of additional development for a population that size could realistically be achieved over the next few years with strong public-private partnerships and could be further expanded over the next few decades to support a few hundred thousand people.
As Mark Lutter, founder of the Charter Cities Institute, wrote in 2016, “Building a charter city in Guantanamo Bay would turn a symbol of American tyranny into a symbol of American hope. Rather than being known for indefinitely detaining prisoners, subjecting them to waterboarding and sleep deprivation, Guantanamo Bay could be a showcase for the best part of America, a symbol of the hope and opportunity America offers.”
Embracing this vision would provide freedom to Hong Kongers, allow us to test a promising model for helping refugees find safety and economic prosperity, as well as revive our currently cold relationship with China.