DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Organic Relations: The Hidden Power Behind Community Development

Written by: on September 13, 2018

The evolution of the British empire over several centuries was one of ‘divide and rule’. The early expansion of the 15th–18th centuries was a simple exercise in trade exploitation under the thin veil of financially backed ‘exploration’.[1] However, that exploration often confronted two realities: extraordinary economic opportunity alongside non-compliant populations. For the most part, the heavy-handed approach to occupation worked well if the population had an inferior military capacity and the geography was favourable. By the end of the 18th Century, however, new trade lands were less accessible to invasion. Of them, China and Russia were two continents that were never going to roll over. Though Russia and China represented no real military challenge to the British, they were both centres of intellectual and technological expansion during the 17th century.[2] Consequently, when it came to negotiating with China, and Hong Kong in particular, a different approach was required, a pragmatic one based on trade ‘relationship’ rather than full colonisation.[3]

Tsang’s, ‘A Modern History of China’, is a straightforward read and highlights the modernising of international trade relations. However, it also shows how reciprocal relationships shape both sides of the negotiating table even though one party may have the upper hand concerning power.[4] This isn’t to say it was simple, however. The Colonial Secretary and English Social Reformer, Joseph Chamberlain, saw early on that the old British dynamics were attempting to undermine fair representation of the minority by creating a thinly disguised oligarchy.[5] Tsang makes clear that there was a pragmatic and organic development to Hong Kong society. When left to their own devices, people will generally find a workable balance, especially if there is a benign overlord in the background.[6]

There is a haphazardness to Hong Kong’s development that reveals a fragility. In truth, the rear-view mirror shows the past in a better light than it probably was. People being people, the outcomes of the two Anglo-Chinese wars could have become full civil war and an international disaster, but they did not. Also, the untended secondary consequences of British settlement on the Hong Kong Peninsular seeded the beginnings of the Chinese revolution. Scholars from inland China were impressed with how orderliness, legal consistency (in a comparative sense) and the rule of legitimate law could so transform urban populations.[7]

What we learn from history is that people have not changed much. We all want to survive, prevail, enjoy what we have, live in peace, have what’s required to raise a family and so on. However, we are also greedy, unpredictable, culturally bound, fearful of the alien in our midst, and much more reactive than we are reflective. Moreover, despite all that, we know we need each other. What history does reveal, is that we can learn. Our nature may be entirely consistent, but our capacity to deal with it is a choice. Tsang’s book is that story. There is developed thinking in British political leadership. It is not entirely consistent, but it is indeed there. Tsang’s record of the relationship between China and Britain in World War II highlighted the outcomes of Britain’s governance of Hong Kong as representation. Even though Japan’s military might killed of any sense of the ‘white man’s power’, it had no intention of treating China or any other East Asian country as equals.

As a consequence, China’s alliance with Britain was firm enough to push back on the Japanese invasion of 1941 and continued to do so until the emancipation in 1945. Japan misread the political times – empire was no longer politically viable.[8] Though the messy and unpredictable relationship continued after the war, the Hong Kong lease arrangement with China continued to work effectively for both parties: political leadership centred on the relationship, representation and trade were working, at least by global standards.[9]

The most surprising outcome of the Hong Kong story has been the events since 1997. I visited in 1990, and there was a palpable fear among the population about what was coming their way as the lease concluded in 1997. However, their greatest fears did not come to pass. Just as the Chinese revolution had its genesis in the success of Hong Kong, China as a whole went through an unexpected shift economically and politically, much to the surprise of the world. Consequently, when 1997 came around, and capitalist Hong Kong returned to Chinese jurisdiction, their policy was straight out of the British playbook: “Leave it be, so far as it serves the needs of the PRC.”[10]

There is an intuitive and messy fluidity in all good leaders, whether they be Christian, secular business or national politics. The art of reading the people, the circumstances, the conflicts, outcomes and threats, and then stitching them together in such a way that movement is possible, is never pure. Without being trite, there is listening to God, too. However, that can never be enough in itself. The Oligarchies that Chamberlain put an end to are all too often found in our church communities that claim to hear from God without being tested.

In Acts 15 the Jerusalem Council addressed similar conflicts as the alien gentiles flooded the Jewish Christian church. For the church leaders of the time, it was little more than an extension of the earlier issues the Jews had with the occupying Romans, with whom the Sadducean sect negotiated when no one else would.

Good Leadership is ongoing negotiation and communication, especially in times of transition. Moreover, those negotiations are as crucial in peacetime as they are under the threat of open war.


[1] LaHaye, Laura. “Mercantilism.” Concise Encyclopedia of Economics 2nd Ed, (2007):

[2] Tsang, Steve. A Modern History of Hong Kong. New York: I.B.Tauris : Kindle Edition, 2004. 4

[3] Ibid, 20

[4] Ibid, 23

[5] Ibid, 27-28

[6] Ibid, 62

[7] Ibid, 75

[8] Ibid, 125-12

[9] The contingency model of leadership effectiveness is a model of leadership effectiveness that focuses on both person variables and situational variables. The right leaders at the right time in the right place determines the outcomes. See Sternberg, Robert J. “The Person Versus the Situation in Leadership.” The Leadership Quarterly Vol. 13, no. 3 301-232.

[10] Tsang, Steve. A Modern History of Hong Kong. 236

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

6 responses to “Organic Relations: The Hidden Power Behind Community Development”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Great post Digby, thoroughly enjoyed seeing how you picked up and tied the relational aspect of leadership to the reading.

    We forget many times that the “first” Christians were Jewish and would have seen the incoming of the Gentiles as an invite into the Jewish nation, not just of their faith.

    As leaders, we too can take a “Leave it be, so far as it serves the needs of the PRC” type approach to relationships. While that way may work for a while (and even China and Hong Kong are trending towards tension here), the Acts account seems to point to a better road map of transitioning two apparent opposing entities into one.

    Besides negotiation and communication are there any other mechanisms you have found useful in times of transition as such?

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Mario. I initially considered making a comparison with Tsang’s history and the development of our nation here in New Zealand. Our indigenous population are Maori and remain warrior people. Unlike, the Aboriginals in Australia, who were systematically exterminated by the settlers, Maori fought hard and won a treaty with the British Crown that we live under to this day. Even now there is tension within our biculturalism (‘Tangata Whenua’ are the indigenous people, and ‘Pakeha’ are the new arrivals). It’s not uncommon to hear Pakeha claim that, after all these years, we are all New Zealanders, which is code for, “let’s not address the injustices of the past, and move on”.
      The question of how we become ‘one’ is complex. As Christians, it can be a little more straightforward because our current personal and corporate identity is always, ‘in Christ’. That’s doesn’t make it easy, for apparent reason, but it does provide an agreed foundation from which to launch.
      As I mentioned in another post, the early Christian mission to Maori was successful in every way. After some 40 years, there were more Maori Christian than European or Chinese put together. However, in later years, the failure of the institutional church to protect Maori interests during land confiscation quite literally killed the Maori church, and it has never recovered. The transition of most importance for our country was between what we refer to as the ‘pioneering’ era and the ‘settler’ era. The former was one of relationship, development and sharing. The latter was one of power, ownership and racial segregation based on fear.
      Reflective missiology requires we do deep reflection on our responses to transitional challenges. They may be sincerely held social, moral and theological propositions that cause us to act against the very people we are working with and the mission context in which we find ourselves. The idea of oneness can often mean agreeing on all things, but in reality, it’s the capacity to live with each other despite our differences, just as the Jerusalem council established in Acts 15: nobody got everything they wanted.
      Part of the challenge in transitional leadership is relinquishment on both sides and also allowing honest reflection on our behaviour to breathe. However, the more powerful party often fails to do so. When that’s the case, we are protecting an identity other than, ‘In Christ”.

      • Andrea Lathrop says:

        My goodness, Digby. Your response to Mario’s question is incredibly insightful. I took out a paragraph in my post about white privilege in the U.S. It is a difficult thing to bring up and I didn’t believe I could do it justice outside of a in-person dialogue. My point was that what is dangerous about privilege is that it is nearly indiscernible by those that benefit the most from it. It takes a great deal of openness, respect and courage on both sides to broach this kind of topic. And like you said, it also takes relinquishment. In order to move forward in unity we must let go of some things and cannot have everything we may want.

  2. When we consider our human weaknesses and failures, it is quite astonishing that the hand-off went as well as it did. I’m still amazed that the PRC accepted the terms in the Basic Law and the SAR. There is a rich and uncomplicated articulation of basic human rights, freedom of religion, etc. that is at odds with the ideologies supporting the PRC. My prayer is that the leadership of China one day recognizes the internal conflict of continuing to embrace the “one country, two systems” model because at some point it will break. Let’s hope they figure that out before 2047.

  3. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks so much for your thorough and articulate post. How have you seen the organic and pragmatic development of Hong Kong society continue beyond 1997? How do you see this continuing into the future? What possibilities does this have for the role of the Church in Hong Kong society?

    Thanks so much for your thoughts and perspective, H

  4. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hello Harry. No, I haven’t seen Hong Kong’s post-1997 life firsthand. All I know in meeting people from that part of the world is that the original fears of a devolution to a communist economy and state rule were never realised. I guess Hong Kong in the 1990’s failed to see the major economic restructuring of Beijing and changes to international policy. China has become more open in recent times than Russia and in that sense, I wonder if Hong Kongs success had something to do with the shift the mainland went through. Also, no one lives forever and old leaders eventually cede to a new generation. Things rarely go backward, but they do change. As far as the church goes, I understand that the Christian church there has one of the highest growth rates worldwide, and not from western influence. A friend recently commented, that one aspect of British Rule was the concept of trust and fair dealing. The Christian conception of “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is unheard of in aspects of Asian life. In British business, it meant you mostly trust the people you were trading with. The Chinese observed this Christian principal in action, and when applied consistently, communities thrived. Without it, corruption prevails. However, to practice it requires the transformation of the human heart – ironically, the western world is slipping a little in that department. Inasmuch as China is changing, so are we.

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