“The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!”

View from Victoria Peak

The announcement came over Facebook, “Are you excited for the Hong Kong Advance? We are!” That declaration came from one our administrators at the seminary encouraging our cohort to get ready for our upcoming trip. Don’t get me wrong, of course I’m excited but right now I can’t get past the thought of having to write about Hong Kong using material from Steve Tsang’s prodigious work on the history of Hong Kong aptly called A Modern History of Hong Kong.

When I say “prodigious” I mean 300+ pages of dense material, covering detail upon detail of Hong Kong’s humble beginnings as a fishing village in the 19th century to the global economic powerhouse it became a century and a half later. The in-between years is fascinating, more like inexplicable1 how a true partnership between Great Britain, the super power at the time, and China the “sleeping giant” to achieve what no other nation has in the modern era. What could account for this? One of my deepest interests and a hopeful outcome in pursuing a DMin is giving myself space and time to figure out the factors that cause human beings to flourish. Could those be identified? And before we answer that, could we come to a common understanding of what human flourishing is about?

These are big questions indeed. However I am convinced the history of Hong Kong has some important human flourishing lessons to teach us. According to Tsang in A Modern History of Hong Kong, “The greatest contribution of British rule in this regard was to provide the political framework and social stability that enabled Hong Kong’s economy to flourish”2 Elsewhere he states that the reason the economy transformed in dramatic ways in the 1950s “lay in providing the conditions for industries to develop and grow. It maintained political and social stability at a time when neither could be taken for granted in East Asia.”3 What is even more amazing is that all of this was accomplished in Hong Kong without the British formally colonizing it unlike, for example, Africa and India.

What made Hong Kong work in the way that even impressed unconcerned Chinese leaders? After all, they didn’t really care at all for Hong Kong, until it became their “goose that kept laying golden eggs.” Even Mao, so disinterested that he relegated governance, albeit undefined, to the British, so long as the Chinese people were respected and treated fairly. In fact for a good period of time, Hong Kongers lived relatively stable and peaceful lives without any intervention of a formal government. For several decades leading up to the 1980s Hong Kong was self-governed, enjoying democracy with officially having it. Sure, the British governors presided over the court systems and established basic laws but that was only to maintain an order that already existed. Anyone interested in matters of nation building would be very curious to know the formula that made this British pseudo colony successful.

I’m sure there is no easy answer to this question. And the possible answers will vary wildly depending on who you ask. However if one were to ask Tsang he would say this:

The vitality and strength of the British economy, politics, armed forces, science, technology and, in their own eyes, their way of life governed by liberal democracy and the Christian faith gave the Victorians venturing to Asia or, for that matter, Africa a sense of superiority over the so-called natives.4

There is no perfect society. That is stating the obvious. Sure there were inequities and discrimination against the natives as part of the backstory of the Sino-British narrative. But even the natives did not think it was any worse than what they had experienced in the mainland. In fact, the situation was so much better in Hong Kong that many Chinese started immigrating en masse to seek better opportunities. By the 1980s, missiologists and anthropologists recognized the problems, shortcomings and challenges of colonization that came with the era of pax Britannica. The history lessons were not wasted on the Britons and when it was time to plan for the eventual return of Hong Kong to China, the British showed genuine concern for the future and welfare of the people of Hong Kong.

I am not sure if Tsang meant to include the Christian faith in a disparaging way. But how else does one explain the incredible progress realized in Hong Kong? Fascism had been defeated, communism that built the Berlin wall demonstrably failed, USSR declined, eventually collapsed and socialism has come to nothing. Confucianism, with its emphasis on moral values and correctness of social relationships could only take China so far.

What else is left then? Perhaps the answer is Christianity. Yes, even with all the flaws, imperfections and hypocrisy of believers, nations and culture can thrive, and we see it first hand in the case of Hong Kong. It was Christianity that undergirded the careful transition and a genuine care for the wellbeing of the citizens even when Deng, the supreme Chinese leader at the time, doubted and thought it “too alien to take seriously.” It’s in Christianity that we find any sort of cultural mandate (Gen. 1:22; 2:15) to have responsible dominion over all his creation. No other worldview has this view of reality. This point is often times overlooked and glossed over in political and social theory. However, the impetus behind colonization, the thing that drives it and its attachment to the West, namely Christianity, comes from the fact that we (disciples of Jesus) are called to take responsible dominion over creation and extend the Gospel to the farthest reaches of our planet. Of course this interpretation is fraught with controversy which this paper may address at a later time.

Nonetheless, we would be remiss in our day not to consider the lessons in Hong Kong. Naysayers can point to everything that went wrong but Britons got it right for the most part and deserve the credit. The question remains, as it has for the 7.3 million who live in Hong Kong, will the “one country, two systems” model continue to work long after SAR status of Hong Kong ends? Will China along with neighboring nations like Singapore figure out how to modernize without being Westernized? Will the strong presence of human rights and freedom of religion in Hong Kong remain a key central value in the new Hong Kong in 2047? God only knows but Christians must be guardians of everything that is good, true and beautiful. These are uncertain and yet exciting times when God’s people are called to disciple nations. Do we sit back and do nothing or do we answer the call?

I had fun coming up with the title for this blog post. It was sort of tongue in cheek. A century before Hong Kong was even on the map, Paul Revere rode to warn the settlers of the impending attack of the British forces. A century later, with no armada of warships, with little more than a desire to trade, the British landed bringing with them a new way of life, a culture that is embraced even to this day.

Am I excited to visit Hong Kong? Yes I am.

  1. Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong(London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 268.
  2. Ibid.274.
  3. Ibid., 165.
  4. Ibid., 62

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