President Donald Trump makes an announcement about U.S. trade relations with China and Hong Kong in the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday.

Photo: jonathan ernst/Reuters

President Trump on Friday issued his response to China’s assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, and as a statement of solidarity it was welcome. The problem is that the punishment will fall mainly on the innocent people of Hong Kong rather than on the perpetrators in Beijing. A better idea would give Hong Kongers an escape route to America.

China is replacing the “one country, two systems” form of governance it promised Hong Kong with “one country, one system,” Mr. Trump said in remarks at the White House. He’s right. Beijing has signaled it will use a new national-security law to stifle speech and punish dissenters. Dutiful Hong Kong officials might implement the measures as a Potemkin formality, but Beijing will call the shots.

Mr. Trump said he’ll use his authority under last year’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and revoke the city’s special trade and other privileges since it is no longer autonomous. He wasn’t specific, but the implication is that Hong Kong will now be treated more or less the same as China. This could do particular harm to Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, though the far greater damage comes from China’s decision to impose Mainland lawlessness on the free territory.

Mr. Trump said he might also impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who implement China’s new policy, and that has the virtue of hitting the guilty. Yet none of this is likely to deter Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has decided the Communist Party can’t tolerate the example of Hong Kongers protesting in the streets for political freedom.

Which leads to an alternative that would cause Beijing heartburn: Offer Hong Kong’s people green cards to live and work in the U.S. with a path to citizenship if they want.

Britain has taken a large and commendable step in this direction. On Thursday Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that “if China continues down this path,” some 350,000 Hong Kongers will be allowed to stay longer and work in the U.K., “and that will itself provide a pathway to future citizenship.” On Friday the U.K. clarified that this could apply to some 2.9 million British Nationals (Overseas) in Hong Kong, which it ruled for some 150 years until 1997.

The Trump Administration should also make visas available to Hong Kong people who want to immigrate to the U.S. Those who have protested in Hong Kong already have a “well-founded fear of persecution” and would thus qualify for asylum under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Or they could be promptly admitted under a provision know as parole under the same law. Canada and Australia joined the U.S. and Britain in a statement of solidarity this week, and they could offer visas too.

This is the kind of Reaganesque move that would remind the world of America’s big heart and faith in freedom. It would certainly be heard in Beijing, which would watch in horror as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese took up the visa offers. The U.S. would benefit from a rush of new talent that is well educated and entrepreneurial.

They wouldn’t be looking for a welfare check. A Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report found in 2016 that one in five adults in Hong Kong planned to launch a business within three years. Some 67% of Hong Kongers speak average, good or very good English, according to a January report by the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department. American flags have become a regular feature at protests in Hong Kong, which also enrages Beijing.

Our guess is that most Hong Kongers would remain in the territory even if they were granted a green card. It is still their home. But they would do so with new confidence that they have somewhere to go if China’s authoritarian rule crushes the city. They would invest in the U.S. even if they stayed in Hong Kong. Visas might also give younger people the courage to resist Beijing with even more fervor.

Hong Kong is the front line of the world’s new contest between China’s authoritarian model and Western self-government. The challenge for the U.S. is to find policies that impose costs on China when it breaks global rules without also hurting America. Bringing the human talent of Hong Kong to the U.S. hurts China while enhancing America. For Mr. Trump in an election year, it would have the added political advantage of shocking his many critics with its boldness.

Main Street: Decades after Hong Kong gave refuge to Martin Lee’s father, a former Kuomintang general, his son, the founder of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, has just been arrested. Images: KeystoneSTF//AFP/Getty Composite: Mark Kelly

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