While the rest of the world is distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, China has moved to consolidate its control over Hong Kong. The United States should respond by allowing Hongkongers to immigrate to America immediately.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this week that America no longer recognizes Hong Kong as being autonomous from China—effectively ending the so-called "one country, two systems" policy that has been in place since Hong Kong rejoined China in 1997. That has huge implications for trade and immigration, two areas where Washington's agreements with Hong Kong differed from how it treated the rest of China. Pompeo's announcement comes after months of unrest in Hong Kong sparked by China's attempt to pass legislation curtailing the civil liberties and political freedoms enjoyed by residents of the city.
The State Department has threatened to impose sanctions on China for its actions against Hong Kong. That is woefully inadequate. With the freedom of Hongkongers under direct assault, the United States should throw open its doors to accept any of the city's residents who need a place to go.
There are a few ways this could work. It could be as easy as a blanket policy that grants asylum to any resident of Hong Kong who arrives in the United States. It could take the form of a special visa that would allow Hongkongers to settle in American counties where the population is shrinking, with permanent residency granted after five years, as Vox's Matthew Yglesias has proposed. It could even go as far as giving Hongkongers a direct pathway to citizenship, along the lines of what Britain is reportedly considering.
Any of those ideas would do more to counter China's assault on Hong Kong than sanctions (or, knowing how President Donald Trump operates, more tariffs). And the Chinese government knows it: Beijing has already threatened Britain over its proposed exit strategy for residents of Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Beijing's rule would be an international embarrassment for China—and, more importantly, it would be a huge economic blow. Instead of seizing one of the richest and most economically vibrant city on the planet, China would be absorbing a shell of a once-great place.
China's loss would be America's gain. An influx of people from Hong Kong—and the knowledge, skills, money, and entrepreneurship they would bring along—would be an economic boon for the United States, particularly if they resettle in areas where the population is stagnant or declining. Any objections that the refugees don't share American values would be even less legitimate than usual: Protesters in Hong Kong are literally waving American flags as a symbol of their resistance to China's authoritarianism.
The biggest hurdle to making any of this happen is probably the administration's generally anti-immigrant views. Trump has fought not only to reduce illegal immigration into the United States, but to cut legal immigration too—including dramatically reducing the number of refugees allowed into the country. Getting the president to open America's doors for Hongkongers would require him to buck one of the few campaign promises he actually implemented.
Anti-immigrant fervor and misplaced China hawkery may cause the United States to miss out on another opportunity as well. This week, Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tenn.) and Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) introduced a bill to prohibit Chinese nationals from coming to the United States for college degrees or post-graduate programs in science and technology fields. In a statement, the two senators said the measure would protect American national security by preventing Chinese students from conducting espionage under the guise of studying.
"If Chinese students want to come here and study Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers, that's what they need to learn from America; they don't need to learn quantum computing and artificial intelligence from America," Cotton said last month on Fox News—apparently granting posthumous American citizenship to The Bard. Those students, he said, often return to China "to compete for our jobs, to take our business, and ultimately to steal our property and design weapons and other devices that can be used against the American people."
Wrong. According to the National Science Foundation, 90 percent of Chinese students with postsecondary degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics remain in the United States for more than a decade after graduating. That's great for American businesses that get to employ their expertise—and it's not great for China's government, which is worried about its ongoing brain drain.
"Cotton imagines knowledge as a fixed bucket of stuff that gets poured into graduate students' brains by American professors, allowing foreigners to then make off with precious know-how," writes former Reason editor Virginia Postrel in a column for Bloomberg. "But that's not how science works. Graduate students don't just master existing material. They're critical to producing new knowledge." America should want to attract the best and the brightest students from all over the world—not keep them out because of a quarrel between governments.
Some have compared the recent escalations between the U.S. and China to a new Cold War, but U.S. policymakers ought to recall how America won its decadeslong standoff with the Soviet Union. It wasn't by cutting off immigration. Quite the opposite.
The United States opened its doors to refugees from Soviet oppression, and especially to students. What better way to demonstrate the superiority of freedom and markets than to let young people participate in them? Most will stay, and some who choose to return home will take American values with them. Cotton would apparently prefer that the only knowledge Chinese students gain is whatever is approved by the regime in Beijing.
Openness and freedom are still the best medicines against socialism. Barring the door to Hongkongers desperate for escape and to Chinese students eager to learn is handing two easy victories to the Chinese government—and will leave America weaker in the long run.