Hong Kong Is No Longer What It Was

Hong Kong sat atop the Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom for 25 years. When the 27th edition of the index is released Thursday, Hong Kong won’t be found.

In explaining the decision to remove Hong Kong (and Macau) from the index, the editors noted that while both special administrative regions “offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China . . . developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Indeed, the loss of political freedom and autonomy suffered by Hong Kong over the past two years has made that city almost indistinguishable in many respects from other major Chinese commercial centers like Shanghai and Beijing.

Over the past five decades, I have visited Hong Kong countless times. The city has always been a special place, almost magical in its openness—a bustling marketplace uniting two worlds. Its dramatic physical location sets it apart from the mainland, and allowed it to develop as an Asian outpost of Western values.

In truth, however, China’s assimilation of Hong Kong started long before the handover of formal control from London to Beijing. Hong Kong’s value was always as a blend of East and West, and its ties to the mainland and to the United Kingdom were equally important to its prosperity.

Now, however, its ties to Beijing are increasingly forged in steel, and its ties to London—especially to traditions of English common law, freedom of speech, and democracy—have weakened significantly.

I attended the handover ceremony on June 30, 1997. My fear then was that Hong Kong might become just another midsize Chinese city. Sadly, that’s exactly what’s happened.

While Hong Kong has disappeared from the index, the U.S. remains, but its prospects are equally uncertain. The U.S. has this year recorded its lowest economic freedom score and ranking ever (20th overall). Out-of-control federal spending has reduced the U.S. fiscal health score to only 34.9 out of 100, worse than 150 other countries graded in the index.

The current political climate in Washington provides little hope for improvement. The policies being pursued in response to the pandemic, as well as many of those aimed at the Biden administration’s stated priorities, threaten economic freedom and prosperity. The rush toward government regulation makes it likely that U.S. economic freedom scores will plummet in the future.

It’s natural for people to look to the government for help in times of uncertainty. Yet a free people can’t pin their hopes on a government solution to every problem. Not if they expect to remain free. Economic controls, environmental regulation, and Beijing-style centralized planning aren’t the answer to America’s challenges. Only a return to free-market principles, and a recommitment to individual liberty that lies at the heart of the American way of life, will get us out of the mess we’re in.

Mr. Feulner is founder and former president of the Heritage Foundation and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.