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Is ‘New Hong Kong’ an Urbanist Dream or a Technocratic Nightmare?

Uprooting an entire population to stock a “charter city” misses what makes cities tick.

It’s not often that urbanism and international geopolitics overlap. But the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, where the Communist-led People’s Republic of China has been slowly stripping away the freedoms the special administrative region inherited from its 150 years of British rule, is one such occasion.

Hong Kong island was ceded by Qing China to the British in 1842 following the Opium Wars, where Britain forced China to allow the import of opium, among other things. Located at the mouth of the Pearl River and with one of the finest natural harbors in the world, the island was a fine prize, like the location of Singapore to the south. It was right on the doorstep of China’s main port, Guangzhou, then known as Canton to Westerners. Essentially, most of the trade in the area—and Canton was one of the few ports open to foreign traders at the time—would find Hong Kong a more convenient stopping place than up the river. Over the rest of the century the British gained control of more of modern Hong Kong, culminating with a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898.

The colony was important and prosperous, at least for the Europeans in charge—HSBC was formed as the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and the major conglomerate Jardine Matheson was descended from an opium trading partnership (the opium trade was also at the root of a number of leading American old money families, such as the Forbes family of Boston, from whom John Kerry descends).

After World War II, Hong Kong’s population swelled as refugees fled the Communist takeover of mainland China. The city benefited greatly from British administration, which was competent, stable, and mainly interested in supporting businesses. This economic success resulted in a population boom that created today’s familiar skyline; despite the territory having a similar population and land area as New York City, much of the land is unsuitable for building.

But then the lease expired in 1997, and the British handed Hong Kong over the PRC. Before they left, the British obtained an agreement that China would govern Hong Kong as an autonomous area and not change its form of government until 2047. This promise has mostly been honored in the breach.

Because of the ongoing crackdown on civil liberties, there has been talk about how many residents still have or are eligible for British passports. Hong Kong’s colonial success also inspired economist Paul Romer (who later won the 2018 Nobel) to propose “charter cities.” That is, to build new cities over which the national government would voluntarily relinquish sovereignty, to be administered by another country with better institutions. Ideally the city would develop into a Hong Kong-type economic powerhouse and at the end of a term return to the sovereignty of the host country, which would then implement reforms. 

This concept has led several commentators, including Sam Bowman of the International Centre for Law and Economics, Mark Lutter of the Charter Cities Institute, and property developer Ivan Ko, to propose moving Hong Kong. Or rather, building a new one somewhere and moving all the Hongkongers.

Bowman published a map on CapX showing areas in the United Kingdom where the population was zero people per square kilometer and suggested a few of them could be established as a Crown Dependency of New Hong Kong, governed apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. It’s an intriguing idea, even if Bowman’s map includes lakes and national parks on which the British are unlikely to build. 

To an urbanist, a charter city might appear to be the stuff dreams are made from: the opportunity to build a city as good as the 21st century can make it, with no NIMBYs, no zoning committees, no design review boards—just a big budget, some private-public partnerships, and a large bonding capacity. It’s what the current generation of urban planners and urbanists, raised on SimCity, were trained for.

The logistical challenge of building a brand new city of eight million people and moving them there from halfway around the world is immense. New Hong Kong will need a deep water port, which will likely need to be built. That port will need highway and railway connections to the host country’s network. It will need a dedicated water supply, a connection to the electrical grid, and sewage and wastewater treatment systems. A rapid transit system of some kind will be needed. Homes, offices, and industrial spaces will need to be built, as will schools and places of worship.

Songdo International Business District in South Korea. Built on reclaimed land on Incheon’s waterfront next to the Yellow Sea, Songdo is a ‘Smart City’ and an aerotropolis built by Gale International, a development company. (Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

What sort of buildings get built? How to decide who lives where or which businesses go where? It’s bad enough moving to an apartment sight unseen—imagine an entire city. Then there’s the problem of moving all the people there. Aircraft are too small and even cruise ships would need multiple trips. All this assumes that China would tolerate such a massive migration. It would not be difficult for the People’s Liberation Army to block flights at Chek Lap Kok Airport and blockade the sea approaches.

However, the very necessity of slow migration to the new city could mitigate many of those issues. Instead of trying to build everything at once and then move everyone there, the host country could build a few basic facilities such as the port, rail connection, and a few main roads and then auction off lots to a group that could pioneer the building. In this way, New Hong Kong would grow more organically and have a better chance to succeed than some of the new cities that have been built over the years, such as Tianjin Eco-city in China and Songdo in South Korea. It would be more similar to the rebuilding of Tokyo after the Second World War—American incendiary bombing leveled much of the city and post-war aid, while generous, was mostly focused on reconstructing Japan’s government, infrastructure, and heavy industry. According to “When Tokyo Was A Slum,” this left the average Japanese family in a tight spot because they needed to be housed, but there wasn’t much government aid available and the banking system hadn’t yet been put back together. So they rebuilt it themselves, neighborhood by neighborhood. They used affordable building materials sold by neighborhood stores and built simple designs. Neighboring families helped each other, but they didn’t rely on bank loans and contractors and construction companies. 

Crucially, Tokyo was not moved. Therein lies the rub.

Hong Kong is not simply a collection of buildings and infrastructure populated at random. It’s a place, and it’s home to people who have lived there all their lives, to families that have been there for generations, many long before the British arrived. Like every city, it’s a web of dense networks of social and professional relationships. Those networks within the city are in turn connected to others within China, Southeast Asia, and ultimately the world. Some of them are more fragile than others. Break enough of them, and the city ceases to be. 

Some cities survive fires, bombs, floods, and plagues, but others stagnate for decades. To move the people of Hong Kong out of their homes and history seems likely to disturb the relationships on which their city has prospered.

Maybe that risk is worth it. The Communist Party is not dealing in good faith and is more than willing to use their soft, and increasingly hard, power to hide their crimes and keep everyone quiet. In that case, however, it’s ironic that Western commentators have proposed recreating a colonial relationship for the sake of sluggish Western economies. The people of Hong Kong are risking their lives for freedom and democracy and rather than support that, the charter city scheme seems more interested in Hongkongers for their productivity. It’s not a good look.

It’s true that no one has explicitly said that New Hong Kong would not be democratic, but it is implicitly part of the concept—the special city is set up to have different laws from the rest of the country to accelerate economic development. If they could change them by raising taxes or passing various regulations, it would undermine the point of the charter city in the first place.

There doesn’t seem to be much point to liberating the people of Hong Kong from Communist tyranny only to place them in a similar situation in a charter city in the West.

The Free World should do all it can for Hong Kong. We urbanists should stick to fighting NIMBYism and playing SimCity.

Matthew Robare lives in Boston.