September 17, 2019 2:02PM

Hong Kong Protests and the Political Effects of an “Exit” Option

Sparked by a Chinese extradition bill that would have made it possible for people in Hong Kong to be tried in the mainland’s justice system, protesters in Hong Kong have demonstrated against Beijing for 100 days as of this week. Since starting, the protests have grown to include a broader critique of the Chinese communist government’s policies in Hong Kong. In anticipation of a potential government crackdown, no doubt influenced by fear of a repeat of the massacre at Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, the option for protesters and their families to leave seems increasingly important.

One of the potential downsides of a universal “exit option” is that many Hongkongers would just leave the city permanently rather than trying to convince the government there to be more respectful of individual rights. My colleague Christopher Preble and I discussed this on a recent Cato podcast. That is a small concern compared to the potential humanitarian downsides of a deadly crackdown in Hong Kong where people do not have the option to leave, but such a universal exit policy from authoritarian regimes could undermine protest movements around the world and slow the advancement of individual liberty.

On the other hand, emigrants could help support pro‐​freedom protest movements in their home countries from relative safety in the United States or elsewhere. Protesters might also be more bold and people might be more likely to join the protest movement if they know that they can leave if the government responds in a more tyrannical fashion. A last potential outcome is that the possibility of a mass exit will induce governments to be less authoritarian. On this last point, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot went so far as to argue that American open borders in the 18th century would “oblige the European governments to be just and enlightened.”

Fortunately, there is a large and robust academic literature on how emigration affects institutions in home countries. Michelangelo Landgrave and I even co‐​authored a short literature survey on this topic a few years ago to accompany other good surveys.

Unfortunately, only a small portion of that literature is relevant to the situation faced by Hongkongers. Much of that literature examines how return migrants affect institutions in their home countries, which wouldn’t be relevant to the potential effects for Hongkongers as they would likely never be able to return. Another large portion of that literature investigates how monetary remittances affect institutional development, which isn’t relevant for a rich place like Hong Kong. This post focuses on a handful of case studies on how emigrant communities affect political developments in their home countries.

The most relevant paper on this topic is by Toman Barsbai, Hillel Rapoport, Andreas Steinmayr, and Christoph Trebesch. It found that Moldovans who emigrated to Western Europe had a strong and positive impact on the opinions of those left behind through both return migration and by maintaining communication. The lines of communication with emigrants allowed Moldovans living in Western Europe, especially Italy, to influence voters in Moldova to turn against the Communist Party and to embrace more liberal norms, values, and information from outside of the country.

Another paper by José Itzigsohn and Daniela Villacrés found that Salvadorans in the United States worked with hometown associations in El Salvador to support political projects that promote economic development. They also found that emigrants from the Dominican Republic did much lobbying from a distance to maintain émigré voting rights and political participation back in their home countries.

A more recent paper by Mounir Karadja and Erik Prawitz looked at how 19th‐​century Swedish emigration affected voting, labor union membership, strikes, and political institutions in Sweden. Using an instrumental variable method that uses the interaction between harsh winters in Sweden in the late 1860s and the distance to a port, they find that the emigration option improved their bargaining position vis‐​à‐​vis local elites. In 19th and early 20th century Sweden, that meant fewer landlord privileges, stronger labor unions, and more progressive welfare and government policies. An increase in immigration by 10 percent increased voter turnout by 0.8 percent and the labor membership rate by 2.3 percent.

On the other side, emigration from Italy during the Great Recession slowed down political reform and reduced political change in that country according to work by Massimo Anelli and Giovanni Peri. Using an instrumental variable approach, they uncovered these results:

First, greater emigration rates had a negative impact on indicators of political change such as the average age of local politicians, the share of highly educated, and the share of women among them. Second, greater emigration rates also increase the probability of very negative local political outcomes, as captured by the dismissal of a city council.

Political reform in Italy is not as dire nor as important as the protest movement for individual rights in Hong Kong, but it’s important to include results that push in the opposite direction to get a full range of the possibilities. 

Those short case studies are only somewhat analogous to the current situation in Hong Kong or what would happen to the freedom movement there if the United States government or other governments opened their borders to the protesters. Ultimately, allowing Hongkongers to leave will provide an important humanitarian safety valve for people who share American values even if it has an adverse effect on the protest movement. American policymakers shouldn’t second guess the actions of those on the ground protesting China’s totalitarian policies, whether those actions are to stay and continue to protest or to emigrate to the United States. Ideally, the United States government should make it clear that any Hongkonger who wants to leave can come to the United States and be granted asylum with a minimum of restriction.