HK investor proposes new cities abroad for thousands of migrants

August 03, 2020 09:42
Photo: Reuters

A Hong Kong asset manager has proposed building “International Charter Cities” (ICCs) in western countries to receive hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people who want to emigrate.

Ivan Ko (高廣垣) is chairman of the RECAS Global, formerly known as Real Estate Capital Asset Services, which he founded in 2004. Last October he initiated this idea with his friend Dr. Simon Shen, one of the most popular intellectual opinion leaders in Hong Kong, to develop ICCs for Hong Kongers to migrate to. This year, the Victoria Harbour Group (VHG) was set up with the mission of establishing ICCs.

“The population of each ICC will be at most 50 per cent Hongkongers and 50 per cent host residents,” he said. “We seek countries that offer visa waivers for Hongkongers, provide policy support to ease integration and grant access to sufficient land to build. We prefer English-speaking, common-law nations. The ideal land is 25,000 acres or more, within two hours of an airport, and with good water access.

“We would like to secure the land for the first ICC within the next six months, within this year. Then we would start the planning and construction next year. We would like to develop one or two ICCs in the next two, three years,” he said. “Our goal is to develop multiple ICCs in multiple countries.”

Ko has said that the VHG has had contacts with three governments, none of whom are disclosed. However, given its similarity as a small open economy, much of the publicity surrounding the ICC has centred on Ireland.

“We like Ireland. Corporate taxes are very low, one of the lowest in the whole EU. It has very strong manufacturing and biomedical companies. Major tech giants have European headquarters there,” he said.

From the Irish perspective, the Department of Foreign Affairs has said “Following an initial approach in December 2019, the Department had limited contact with the individuals involved to provide helpful and realistic guidance about Ireland. Since providing this guidance, there has been no further action taken by the Department in this matter.”

Ko has previously acknowledged that the VHG has not travelled to Ireland due to pandemic restrictions, so – despite the publicity – it would appear that the VHG is focussed on a different country if it is to achieve its stated aims of beginning construction next year.

Ko said that a survey last October conducted by the Asia Pacific Center of Chinese University of Hong Kong found that over 40 per cent of Hong Kong people were interested in emigrating and the number is estimated to have increased with the implementation of the National Security Law.

“While many higher-income Hongkongers have the wealth and connections to migrate to cities like New York, Vancouver and London, many others do not have these options.”

This is the rationale for a new city, which would offer a wide variety of jobs, in residential buildings, offices, shopping centres, hospitals and schools and could accept those who do not qualify as investor immigrants in existing programmes. “We will be creating a lot of jobs and investment opportunities for the migrating Hong Kong people and also for the local people.”

He compared the project to the pilgrims and Puritans who left Europe in pursuit of religious freedom. “They sailed on two Mayflowers and came to the United States with charters, either from the shipping company or from the royal family. They established their city in New England and in other cities. Hong Kong will change in many ways. We are in pursuit of freedom and democracy.”

He said that, within the next few months, his company hoped to announce the site of the first ICC, its planning and fund-raising.

He said that Hong Kong people were good migrants – hard working, highly educated, efficient, peaceful and skilled in many sectors, especially finance and manufacturing. “The operating environment in China for factory manufacturers is very, very difficult. If you are profitable, you are lucky. Bringing the knowhow, capital, systems and equipment of HK manufacturers to ICC in other countries is very good.”

Beijing has not commented on this project. Ko said that a brain drain over the next 5-15 years would have no effect at all. “Any capital brought away or any position being left empty by migrating Hong Kong people will be filled up in no time by mainland businesses and mainland people.”

The keys to realising this ambitious project are the approval and support of the host country and capital running into hundreds of millions of US dollars. Half of the shares of VHG are to be owned by a foundation that will accept donations globally. When the ICC is working and profitable, it will pay a dividend to the foundation which would provide subsidies or financial assistance to public services in the ICC. The foundation will provide help to emigrating Hong Kongers who might not be able to migrate on their own, either financially or job-wise.

In short, this is primarily a commercial real estate project but the foundation they are creating would not be commercial, it would use dividends it earns and donations it raises to help HK people migrate to the ICCs and help them with job placements and training after they arrive. So it is a commercial project, with a non-profit component.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.