Fantasy Island: Paul Romer and the Multiplication of Hong Kong


In this article we trace mobilizations of the Hong Kong ‘model’ through mutating policy networks to highlight connections made by (and around) Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Romer, as a roving policy advocate for charter cities and as an ‘economist in the wild’. Frustrated in practice but politically resilient, the idea of charter cities recycles the notion of territorial enclaves founded on ‘empty’ land and governed in accordance with purified market rules. Typically indexed to a stereotypical reading of Hong Kong, this model repurposes the tabula-rasa conceit of ‘startup’ urbanization, yoked to a neoliberal vision of ‘islands’ of experimentation. Via an account of the faltering mobilities of the charter-cities model, the article explores the reciprocating circuits and recurring motifs that connect Romer’s expertise as a prominent economist with expedient abstractions of the Hong Kong ‘model’, with the reproduction of ideologically selective policy networks, and ultimately, with the troubled frontiers of charter-city policy development. It culminates in an examination of the protracted effort to build a ‘Hong Kong of the Caribbean’ in Honduras, where grandiose acts of policymaking projection and developmental hubris meet a repeating history of governmental corruption, corporate opportunism and banana republicanism.