Not so long ago, I was walking opposite Whitechapel Gallery in London in what’s now known as Altab Ali Park. It has been refashioned and turned into a wonderful little museum dedicated to Bengali culture and arts. There are statues, a poem by Tagore and so on. And even a photo shoot for a fashion magazine, with a Bangladeshi model posing for the cameras. All of this was, in its way, very British. And that’s when it hit me: Britain could genuinely be a Eurasian capital. It can take an important step now if it seizes a historical opportunity and welcomes the Hong Kong Chinese.
The logic of Brexit was that Britain sees its opportunities globally – and here, in Hong Kong, is an opportunity to strengthen Britain and shape a new world balanced between East and West. If Hong Kong (as we know it) disappears in Asia, why not have a new Hong Kong being reborn in the UK? It may sound like a crazy idea, but that is what you need, post Brexit: a big bold idea which very few countries can afford to do.
Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ status is under threat. Many fear for their own future and for the future of their city. There are 2.9 million Hong Kongers who are entitled to a UK passport, 300,000 of whom are already entitled to travel to the UK for up to six months without a visa. You could, as Dominic Raab has suggested, lift passport restrictions and offer these people a path to UK citizenship. But if you want to replicate the success of Hong Kong, there is a better way than integrating Hong Kongers into British life and standard British regulations.
The more imaginative solution would be to take up the idea of US economist and Nobel Prize-winner Paul Romer and allow the development of a charter city – an offshoot of Hong Kong, with its own regulations, established somewhere in Britain. Think of it as another version of ‘one country, two systems’, but run in the UK. A giant enterprise zone. That way, you wouldn’t just boost your economy with extra workers – you would learn something from Asia about how to run an entrepreneurial economy. The UK needs another pole to balance the power and wealth of London. A charter city, perhaps in Cornwall or the North, could be it.
The whole logic of leaving the EU was to be able to experiment with new kinds of regulation and public policy. This, surely, is the whole point of leaving the single market. The UK has already considered free ports. But to go further, with Charter Cities, would be a very dramatic way to do it, emphasising the difference between Britain and the rest of Europe. It is exactly the sort that members of the EU cannot do. When I was in the Portuguese government, we had a lot of trouble with a different tax regime that we wanted to apply in Madeira. The pressure from Brussels was enormous.
The beauty and power of Hong Kong has always lain in its ability to fuse together East and West. After 1997, China respected Hong Kong’s role as the capital of Eurasia, combining the best of Europe and Asia. But if China has given up on this, it is time for someone else to recreate it elsewhere – so why not Britain? Already, there is a Hong Kong developer looking for a site for a new beginning: there have been discussions, I understand, with Canada and Ireland. But Britain, now outside the EU, and with 2.9 million Hong Kongers eligible for UK passports, is in pole position. Not so long ago, Britain spoke about the global race. This is a superb opportunity to get ahead.