LONDON — The United States and Britain are arguing about refugees, but the row is over the wrong refugees. Britain is determined to forcibly return about 40,000 Vietnamese who fled to Hong Kong, while the United States wants Hong Kong to let the refugees stay if they will not agree to return home voluntarily. (On Tuesday, Britain suspended the forced repatriation for a week.)
The British believe that the U.S. government, which treats Mexicans and Haitians in a similarly rough way, has little ground for such criticism. And by focusing on the Vietnamese, the United States avoids facing the far more complex problem of the likely flood of Hong Kong residents fleeing the colony as the 1997 Chinese takeover approaches.
Ever since the massacre in Beijing's Tian An Men Square in June, Britain has quietly been trying to stir up support among allies for cooperative measures to ensure the stability of Hong Kong, or failing that, to cope with the expected surge of those seeking refuge.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has raised the matter at the European and Commonwealth summit meetings and has sought American help on both a bilateral basis and as a member of the Industrialized Democracies. The consistent response, when stripped of its diplomatic drapery, is that "this is a problem of British colonialism and you had better sort it out yourself."
Although London might expect such cynicism from many Europeans, not to mention other Commonwealth members who had to wring independence from Britain, it is the U.S. attitude that seems most shortsighted. If anything, because of its major investment in Hong Kong, the United States has an even greater stake in its stability and success and stands to gain the most from any plan to take in Hong Kong refugees.
Despite the Bush Administration's overture to Beijing last weekend, many in Washington seem willing to stand tough against the repressive Chinese regime. For that reason, it is all the more surprising that Washington is not willing to take a leading role in providing an "insurance policy" for the people of Hong Kong.
Britain is looking for an international agreement whereby the developed world will pledge to take in Hong Kong residents who want to leave when the next crisis of confidence erupts. It is hoped that such a promise will not only help ensure China's good behavior, but will give the people of Hong Kong the confidence to stay at home and make the economy work. Even at current levels of emigration (mostly to Canada and Australia), Hong Kong will lose so many of its professionals that the economy will fail rapidly.
The success of an insurance policy for Hong Kong residents is not merely a matter of immediately offering extra passports to the colony's 5.7 million residents. To do so now would turn the stream of professionals seeking a more secure life into a flood of people unwilling to wait for the next crisis. Unless the insurance policy is framed so that it can only be activated after a crisis has begun, it will only ensure the immediate collapse of Hong Kong.
However, there is no exact model for such a complex arrangement. Similarly unique conditions faced the developed world in the late 1970s, when refugees flooding out of Vietnam overwhelmed the Southeast Asians who were the first port of call for the "boat people." As a result, the United States led an international effort in 1979 to hold a conference in Paris to arrange an orderly departure program that included a Vietnamese government agreement to regulate the flood of refugees.
Of course, Vietnam was a special case for the United States. But refugees from Hong Kong will also be special, for like the Jews escaping Nazi Germany in the 1930s, these will be the most highly skilled and talented refugees in the world. As detailed studies in Canada and Australia show, they are only an economic burden for a short period and quickly become a boost to the local economy.
At a time when the attention of most of the developed world is focused on the epochal events in Europe, it is not surprising that few are thinking about the fate of Hong Kong. But at a time when so many millions are breaking free of communist rule, it would be particularly deplorable if we let millions of others slip back under the control of the much nastier Chinese version of communism.
There is still some hope that if the United States could join with Britain in arranging an international conference to make arrangements and pledge immigration quotas for Hong Kong, then confidence in the colony might be bolstered sufficiently to withstand the next crisis. It does not take a particularly talented crystal-ball gazer to see that when China heaves in political convulsions after the death of its leader Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong will be severely rattled.
Then, if the worst happens and the Hong Kong economy shudders and collapses, the flood of boat people or jumbo-jet refugees would have someplace to go. Under such dire circumstances, the United States and the developed world will not have to deal with anything like 5.7 million refugees. But those they do take in will be the best "exports" that China could ever send.