Hong Kong must not forget its place in Asia's sea trade
Philip Bowring says that as Hong Kong evolves, it must sustain the qualities that made it a key seaborne trading hub through the centuries, with Asian links still most important of all
Any consideration of how Hong Kong should try to be in the future should start with a good look at the past. That does not mean, as is usually supposed, the recent colonial past. It is the past two millennia and the role places like Hong Kong have played in Asian history, especially commercial history. It is the past before modern nation states, when an over-arching political authority was less important than the links provided by trade, religion and other shared interests.
The British and other Europeans were simply part of a continuum, albeit from distant lands. Even for these arch-imperialists, Hong Kong in many ways fitted an earlier era, not imperialism at its zenith in the late 19th century.
It was not a colony in the traditional sense of a place where Britons would settle or even one whose minerals they could exploit. It offered almost nothing in the way of preferences to British goods. It was not even of much strategic importance for a nation whose wars in the region had very limited, mostly trade, objectives.
Hong Kong was one of a string of ports, including fellow free ports Singapore, Melaka and Penang, which existed to further trade generally on the assumption of what was good for trade was good for an island nation such as Britain, whose empire was until its latter stages a mercantile, private-sector one. Even its great cities in India, Chennai and Kolkata, were originally trading entrepots which expanded into ruling territory in search of stability and sources of goods.
But the British did not invent the pan-Asian trade story. They were astute enough to recognise what was already there, albeit sometimes only in embryo, and some of the complex reasons why trading cities rose - and fell. For the history of two millennia is as much about those who fell as those who rose in that seaborne system, which was centred in island and peninsula Southeast Asia but which connected that mostly Malay region to coastal eastern India and coastal southeast China and ultimately to Persia, Arabia and Europe.
Penang was the successor to ports on the Kra isthmus which provided links between India and China and the spice islands of eastern Indonesia either via the Malacca straits or by land between Andaman sea and Gulf of Thailand ports. The Andaman and Sumatra coasts were important in the spread of Indian culture and writing throughout Southeast Asia.
Hong Kong itself was simply a British version of the southern China international trade hub, a successor to Guangzhou which itself was a successor to Quanzhou in Fujian. Singapore was not created by Raffles. It had its origins as a trading post created by a prince from Sri Vijaya, the mercantile empire based in Palembang, Sumatra, that was the biggest player in regional trade, and connections to India and China for 500 years.
The same prince created Melaka which in turn became the major port of Southeast Asia at the intersection of trade winds. Melaka was a small but very influential Malay sultanate which played regional politics to protect its trading interests. Thus it paid tribute to China but also (Beijing please note) to the Siamese court at Ayudhya and the Majapahit one in east Java.
Keeping China happy through tribute missions was viewed as necessary because the Southeast Asian states needed trade, while for Beijing trade was largely in non-essential spices, tin, gold, timber and other tropical forest products. But China also sent missions with gifts to Southeast Asian rulers.
Success of particular ports was partly driven by geography. But it also needed stable government, honest officials, laws regulating commerce and good warehousing facilities. Crucial too was the naval or diplomatic clout to keep the seas relatively free from pirates - a particular problem in island Southeast Asia with its huge coastline, multiple small states and seafaring skills. Whatever the future relationship between China and the US, Japan and Southeast Asian states, the security of the seas is absolutely vital to the prosperity of this trade-based region.
In the past, the Nanyang was not a primary concern of rulers in Beijing. Chinese influence was mostly a private-sector phenomenon, of traders and migrants. Hopefully that will not change because trade will thrive best in the absence of political interference. China as a continental empire land power will probably never - unlike Britain or Sri Vijaya - put trade and maritime power at the centre of national interests. If it tried, the results would likely be disastrous as it is hard to see India, Indonesia and Japan all accepting Chinese control of the seas and their trade.
For Hong Kong, the lesson of this history is the need to sustain the specific qualities which make for an international trading hub but also to recognise how its role fits with other hubs, especially in Asia. It is of course part of a globalised world of trade and finance, but more specifically it is a key Asian link, part of history of ports which have risen (and fallen) according to how they met the needs of the time, and whether the time favoured trade.
It is part of an Asian water world and for all the changes wrought over the past 100 years by aviation and faster land transport, water remains the number one trade facilitator and Hong Kong's raison d'etre.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator