Home / World / Hong Kong has set the bar for charter cities. But it is not a project that can be carried

Hong Kong has set the bar for charter cities. But it is not a project that can be carried

According to real estate developer Ivan Ko’s original plans, the charter town “Nextpolis” would be wedged between two of Ireland’s largest cities and filled with half a million Hong Kongers fleeing political pressures in their hometown.

But while charter cities are quite common, international charter cities are another matter. The idea, proposed in the late 2000s, was that new cities could be established in developing countries and run by governments or external organizations, with a completely different economic and social model from the rest of the country, as a way to enhance Development.

If “Nextpolis” goes ahead, it will be the first offer to establish an international charter city ̵

1; albeit with some changes – in nearly a decade, and the first to move beyond the planning stages.

Previous attempts have been derailed by corruption and instability, while the model itself has been denounced by some as neocolonial and impractical.

Ko, founder of the international charter city investment firm, Victoria Harbor Group (VHG), says his plan for a “new Hong Kong” in Ireland is still on track, despite an apparent lack of progress with Irish authorities. .

What is a charter city?

International charter cities were first conceived by economist Paul Romer in the late 2000s.

Hong Kong itself was the original inspiration for many supporters of international charter cities, including Romer, who saw it as a proof of concept: a city that had operated for decades with a British structure in Asia, and then a political system. and economic unique in China.

International charter cities work like this: A new city is created within a sovereign country but is free to experiment with its own political and economic system, usually one with low taxes and little regulation. A foreign country might even act as the city administrator – the idea is that a spill-over effect from this city will boost the economy of the developing country in which it is built.

Romer, in a 2009 Ted Talk, gave the example of creating a “special administrative zone” in Guantanamo Bay, on the southeastern tip of Cuba, which would be administered by Canada, and “connecting the modern economy and the world. modern “in Cuba. This is similar to how China created a special economic zone in Shenzhen to connect the country to the capitalist world and give urban pockets greater economic freedom to experiment without a wholesale change in the national economic system.

Hong Kong or Ireland? (It's Ireland.)
But Romer’s two attempts to establish international charter cities in Madagascar and Honduras both ultimately failed.
The first project fell apart when Romer’s supporter, Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana, was forced to leave power in a coup in 2009. He then turned his attention to Honduras, which had just suffered its own. coup d’etat, bringing President Porfirio Lobo to power. Corruption concerns dogged the project, and Romer eventually resigned from a transparency committee that was supposed to oversee it, saying he had been blocked by key information.
For many critics of the paper city model, the instability and corruption observed in these developing countries pointed to a problem at the heart of the idea itself: that you can’t fix countries by parachuting some neoliberal economists with big ideas. Others have also argued that the idea itself was neocolonial.
Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist and author of “The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions”, said that the closest model to charter cities in practice is free trade zones, which were “categorically denounced in the development economics literature because they do practically nothing to improve actual development results. “

“Wages tend to be lower than in the country, labor standards worse (and) non-existent environmental standards,” he said. “This makes it ideal for foreign capital accumulation models, but not good for national development.”

New Hong Kong?

Ko, the founder of “Nextpolis,” told CNN that he had been working on the idea of ​​an Irish-Hong Kong “charter city” since last year, when anti-government riots rocked Hong Kong, leading many to consider leaving. But while it is reportedly carrying out its plan, the Irish government is unenthusiastic.

In a statement, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs said that “following an initial approach in December 2019, the department had limited contact” with Ko and took “no further action” on the matter.

Though initially happy to speak, Ko cut communications in July. The same month, several students suspected of “secession” were arrested under a new security law imposed on the city by Beijing. Ko’s plan had been advocated by many as a potential solution for those who distrusted the law.

And if anything ever happens, it’s likely a radically reduced version of Ko’s original vision. According to a version of the plan leaked to the Times of London, it initially proposed a half-million-person deal. Its top floor is for a city of just 15,000, smaller than some Hong Kong housing estates. According to the Times, officials expressed concern about acquiring the amount of land needed for a city of the size Ko initially suggested.

Ko is not the only charter city supporter who sees this as a potential solution to Hong Kong’s current political crisis. But while these proposals hint at Romer’s ideas, in practice they would be very different beasts: Ireland is obviously not a developing country, nor is there any possibility of the Hong Kong government getting involved to help build the new settlement.

Yet Hong Kong is such an attractive example to charter city proponents of a place that exists within a country but governs itself differently that many believe this model can be transferred to another continent, swapping China for Ireland or the United Kingdom, to enjoy the same economic success that Hong Kong has in recent decades.

The original charter city

In a recent essay “Let’s build Hong Kong 2.0 here in the UK”, Sam Bowman, director of competition policy at the International Center for Law & Economics, wrote that “charter city advocates want to replicate Hong Kong’s success and Singapore. “

But proponents of charter cities are often guilty of selecting the characteristics of the city they prefer and pointing to them as the causes of its development, ignoring other less palatable issues. What Bowman and others lack is that the incidents of history have made Hong Kong what it is today, and the resulting complex economic fabric would be difficult to replicate.

Hong Kong was born out of colonial rule. The British administered a small portion of what was previously Chinese territory until 1997, giving it an established legal framework and access to government experience.

And while libertarian economist Milton Friedman has called Hong Kong under the British a “quasi-laboratory experiment in what happens when the government limits itself to its function and leaves people free to pursue their own goals,” the reality is not so. simple.

But when Friedman made those observations in the 1980s, when he made a documentary about the city, Hong Kong was booming as a manufacturing hub, thanks to factories that take advantage of staff who are partly made up of immigrants from China. The city was also increasingly emerging as a tax haven and financial center, both connected and sufficiently separated from the global monetary system to avoid regulation.

And despite all the talk about Hong Kong’s ancient freedoms, its Chinese residents didn’t have much political representation until the turn of the 20th century.

“It’s very easy to have a libertarian free market paradise if you don’t have democracy,” said Sam Wetherell, a city historian at the University of York.
The legacy of that system can be seen today in Hong Kong, one of the most unequal societies in the world, with low wages and stratospheric rents that force many people to live in small apartments or even in so-called “cage houses”, sharing a small , heavily divided space with dozens of others. The city is also heavily dependent on a low-paid class of migrant workers, many of whom are forced to live with their employers and earn less than the already low minimum wage of $ 4.80 an hour.

John Mok, an academic at the University of California, Irvine, who studies Hong Kong, said western thinkers “always frame Hong Kong as an economically liberal city with good liberal values.”

“We Hong Kongers know very well that the gap between rich and poor is very, very wide,” he said.

Supply and demand

While Hong Kong may have some connection with the idea of ​​an international charter city, building a “new Hong Kong” for migrants in another country is a distinct departure from the original concept.

Instead of building a charter city within a developing country, catering to an existing population that needs jobs and opportunities, the “new Hong Kong” model is based on Ireland or another government willing to accept. thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of new migrants, on the grounds that the proposed city will bring economic benefits.

To sell this idea, many supporters have framed the people of Hong Kong as economic dynamos, often wandering into racially tinged territory of “industrious Asians”.

Writing in the Telegraph, Daniel Hannan, a former conservative politician and Brexiteer author, called for a self-governing Hong Kong in Britain, on the grounds that the emigrants “would bring their own wealth. And, once they arrived, they would generate business. economic for the surrounding region, just as they did in their hometown. “
Elsewhere, Bloomberg’s editorial board and Australian government ministers have also talked about the potential benefits of migrants from Hong Kong.

However, Chinese-American scientist Yangyang Cheng said that these “sparkling phrases are not compliments. They are dehumanizing.”

“The dominant rhetoric of Western countries goes beyond the humanitarian principle to emphasize self-interest,” he wrote. “They paint a caricature of a population in which Hong Kong’s poor and marginalized are never part of the picture, in which the value of a life is defined by its productivity.”

Rich and highly educated migrants can be a boon to the countries they move to, these comments ignore the fact that a huge percentage of Hong Kong’s population suffers from the wealth gap and overlook the reality that a new city may not offer the same economic opportunity as their home.

“By describing Hong Kongers as the ‘right’ type of immigrant, distinct from US-Mexican border migrants or refugees across the Mediterranean, Western lawmakers see the Asian city as their own political theater,” Cheng wrote. . “They claim the role of human rights defenders by feigning solidarity, while espousing racist and xenophobic policies at home”.

Nor is it necessarily clear that many Hong Kong citizens would agree to move to north-east Ireland, or an underpopulated part of the UK, as charter city proposals require them to do.

Wetherell, the University of York academic, said that despite promises to somehow recreate the Hong Kong system in Ireland or the UK, a person’s ties to a particular place “are much deeper than the similarity. of physical buildings “, economic models or tax regimes.

“Ireland isn’t Hong Kong, it’s a different climate, it’s a different world,” he said. “(Even if I could) rebuild the Hong Kong skyline in Ireland, it wouldn’t be the same.”

According to Mok, who along with colleagues interviewed Hong Kongers looking to relocate overseas, the self-managed island of Taiwan was overwhelmingly the first choice, pointing to the shared culture and history and the island’s proximity. in Hong Kong.

A 28-year-old lawyer who was planning to emigrate told CNN that he too was inclined to Taiwan. He liked the idea of ​​building a new Hong Kong, but said he “never really thought seriously” about Ireland.

“I’ve been there once, for two weeks. It’s a lovely place, but I don’t know much about it,” he added, speaking anonymously because of the delicacy of the subject. “Many Hong Kong people already live in Canada and the United States, or Taiwan and there are already mini communities of Hong Kong people. I’m not sure it’s the same for Ireland.”

CNN’s Jadyn Sham contributed to the report.

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