China is crushing Hong Kong. A new national security law and a crackdown on dissident activists are just the latest steps in the dismantling of "one country, two systems," the framework that was supposed to guarantee the freedoms that made Hong Kong a thriving global city.
As the world watches, Britain looks on with an especially keen sense of responsibility.
When the British handed Hong Kong to China in 1997, Chris Patten, the colony's last governor, said: "Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise. That is the unshakable destiny." The clampdown suggests otherwise. As China reneges on its agreement with Britain, the U.K. clearly failed in its duty to safeguard Hongkongers' freedom.
In an encouraging sign that it has not forgotten its obligations to the city, the British government has now opened up a route to citizenship for nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents.
Before the handover, Hong Kong residents were able to register for special passports, called British national (overseas) passports, giving them a limited set of rights, including the ability to visit the U.K. for six months.
On Thursday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that, unless Beijing reversed the new security law, these passport holders would be able to come to Britain for an initial 12-month period that could be extended to "provide a pathway to future citizenship." The option initially seemed to be available only to the 350,000 Hongkongers who currently hold such passports. A day later, the government made clear it was proposing something far more radical: a path to full British citizenship for the nearly three million Hong Kong residents who were born before 1997 and thus were eligible to apply for the passports.
By allowing Hongkongers to vote with their feet, Britain isn't just offering a new home to the wealth creators of a city more prosperous than Beijing or Shanghai. It's fighting totalitarianism with freedom. The move makes no British claims over Hong Kong. Unlike economic sanctions, which often do the most damage to those they are designed to help, the offer of citizenship would materially improve the choices available to those in Hong Kong. And the revealed preferences of hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers offered a freer life in Britain would be more powerful than even the slickest state-backed propaganda touting the merits of the Chinese model.
No wonder China is furious. Beijing said it would "resolutely oppose" the move and threatened "appropriate countermeasures."
Beyond the geopolitical consequences, the domestic implications for the U.K. could be sweeping. A paper published by the Adam Smith Institute last year cites the precedent of the nearly 30,000 British passport holders of South Asian descent who Idi Amin expelled from Uganda in the 1970s. Those arrivals have been one of Britain's most socially and economically successful immigrant cohorts. The same would surely be true of the potentially far larger group of arrivals from Hong Kong, a dynamic place with strong cultural ties to Britain.
Coming shortly after Britain's departure from the European Union, this offer is also a reminder that Brexit needn't mean the U.K. will turn inwards. As it finds a new place for itself in the world, sticking up for freedom in Hong Kong—the place where the sun finally set on the British Empire—seems like a good place to start.