As a history major in undergrad, I am acutely aware of the fact that nothing happens in a vacuum. History – at least the good, important, interesting and useful kind is only partially about what happened. It is also and maybe especially about why something happened: what societal and/or systemic factors contributed to the outcome; how much of any one situation was driven by personality and/or chance; what were the stated reasons for actions vs. underlying rationale?
As a student and a lover of history, there were many aspects of Steve Tsang’s A Modern History of Hong Kong that were interesting to me and that could be expounded on. But, perhaps because just as history doesn’t happen in a vacuum, neither is it studied in a vacuum, as I have been reading and watching news reports of family separations at our country’s southern border – as I read about the people and the history of Hong Kong, there was one question that kept circulating in my mind: why?
Why is an important question – and it isn’t always clear as things are happening – which is one of the reasons history can be so important and helpful. Conversely, sometimes what was crystal clear at the time can sometimes be clouded by time and/or revisionist history (the Southern rationale for the US civil war is perhaps the best example of this: at the time of the war it was universally and explicitly understood to be primarily about slavery. That understanding is much less clear now.’
In that vein, it was refreshing to read Tsang make the reason for British engagement in Hong Kong, which has shaped so much of it’s history, so clear:
Hong Kong was not picked for a colony by the government in London , and was ‘ occupied not with a view to colonisation, but for diplomatic, commercial and military purposes ’ . . . . . .
It was in an important sense the unintended result of the British Empire pursuing its economic interests in East Asia. From the very moment the British government put at Elliot’s disposal an expeditionary force, it had sought a territorial base along the coast of China to support the trading relations it wished to establish with the Chinese Empire. As Palmerston explained to the Chinese government, Hong Kong was seized ‘ in order that British Merchants trading to China may not be subject to the arbitrary caprice either of the Government in Peking, or its local Authorities at the Sea – Ports of the Empire ’. (Tsang, p. 20)
Although we are, thankfully, mostly past this point in our understanding of Western colonialism, it was not at all uncommon at one point for all sorts of actions individuals and countries took to subjugate other peoples, nations and land to be justified as a moral good. This was often done under missionary pretenses. Just today, the Bible itself was used to to justify the current US administrations family separation policy. As despicable now as it was then.
This isn’t what happened in Hong Kong, but there was some of what was maybe even more common – an action or decision put forth as a ‘good’ or as moral act that was done, in reality, simply because of the benefit it brought to those in power. The establishment of Hong Kong as a free port is just such a happening. Tsang frames that decision clearly:
It was indeed because of the primacy of commercial considerations that Elliot proclaimed Hong Kong a free port as soon as he took possession in January 1841. He declared that ‘ her majesty’s government has sought for no privilege in China exclusively for the advantage of British ships and merchants ’. This generous offer to open Hong Kong to traders of all nations including China was made in light of the ascending might and rising economic power of early Victorian Britain. These were such that free trade posed little if any threat to British commercial supremacy in Chinese waters. Instead, free trade worked to British advantage, allowing Britain to hold the lion’s share of trade and supporting economic and financial activities in China for the rest of the nineteenth century. (Tsang, p. 22)
What does all of this have to do with Leadership, especially Christian leadership? Today, as I wanted to be excited about the World Cup, but the news of the day weighed heavily on my heart and my mind, I have read these words – and the repeated history that they represent as a warning: Be careful, never assume you have the moral ‘right of way’ simply because you claim the name Christian. Especially if you find yourself in a position of power, privilege or authority, take time – and perhaps even great pains – to ask the question: ‘why’? Why am I making this decision? Why do I want to do this? Is this beneficial to the community – to all of the community, especially the indigenous community (if applicable) – or is this decision rooted in my desire for gain, my desire to maintain/achieve/enlarge my power and/or authority? Hard questions to be sure, hard questions that should be asked and answered in community and in relationship – but questions that must be asked.