Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hong Kong

I started reading Restless Empire, China and the World Since 1750 by Odd Arne Westad. Here's what he has to say about Hong Kong:

It was in Hong Kong that the colonial experience in China was formed. It was in the great harbor at the mouth of the Pearl river, that the pattern for hybrid Chinese-European societies would be set. The city facilitated British trade all over southern China, while becoming in population a Chinese city, attracting immigrants from all over the country: refugees, dissidents, entrepreneurs, and fortune hunters. In 1860, Hong Kong had a population of more than 120,000, of whom only 3,000 were non-Chinese.
Like all British colonial cities, Hong Kong was basically well-run, but somewhat shoddy at the edges, where corruption and exploitation thrived. It was a city founded on enormous paradoxes and hypocrisies. The foreign missionaries preached virtue to the Chinese where the foreign merchants kept them addicted to opium. The British preached law and order, though they had taken the territory by brute force. The Chinese came to Hong Kong to take advantage of the opportunities offered them in a city that was not theirs and bore the indignities of being second class residents in a strict racial hierarchy in order to escape a world that was crumbling around them elsewhere in China. Over time, they built their own organizations, as the Chinese diaspora did elsewhere, even though the Hong Kongers had never left their own country.
The great trading houses stood at the center of foreign commercial activity in Hong Kong. Many of these companies - Jardine, Matheson, Butterfield & Swire, Hutchinson - came out of British trade in India after the dissolution of the East India Company in 1834, and established a presence in many treaty ports in China. Still, they were nowhere more influential than in Hong Kong, where they not only ran the economy and in effect also the politics. From the beginning, these trading houses where international organizations, led by English (or in the case of Jardine's, Scots) businessmen but staffed by Chinese, Indians, Europeans, and Americans. By the late nineteenth century, they were the main mediators between Chinese and foreigners, not only in Hong Kong, but all over China, not least because of their increasing control of the Chinese banking system.
It was not just Hong Kong's economic opportunities that drew Chinese from all over but also its educational ones.

- Odd Arne Westad's Restless Empire (slightly edited)

The original charter city

In keeping with a history full of contradictions, Hong Kong serves as the model for charter cities. Proposed by economist Paul Romer, charter cities are semi-autonomous cities in rural sections of developing countries that would have some foreign supervision and, most importantly, would be founded upon a new set of rules.

This unconventional idea was considered and rejected by Madagascar and looks to be having trouble getting off the ground in Honduras. It was always going to be a tough sell - taking the good parts of colonialism. Making an end run around the entrenched interests of local elites is exactly the point, and oddly enough, said elites tend to dislike the idea.

Systems of political/economic order

I'm enjoying tying together the various strands that form the background for modern China's hyperspeed industrial revolution: Confucian order thrown up against the freewheeling and chaotic mixture of cultures and languages of trading cities; complex fluid dynamics of power and money, governments and corporations, and individuals at the margins of empires.

Colonialism is the story of one system for marshaling resources overtaking another, by being more efficient, flexible, scalable, brutal or ruthless. This process seems like a general theme in history:

mercantile > nationalist > feudal > tribal

Maybe, I haven't got the categories quite right. Does capitalism belong there to the left of mercantilism? Judging by Barnett's systems view of the world, you could argue that the age of the mercantile system is not really over, yet.

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