How ignorance undermines Hong Kong’s claim to be going global

Philip Bowring says the overt and subtle prejudices societies harbour are an impediment to trade and progress, and can best be tackled through learning, wherever they are found – whether in Hong Kong, Britain, America or mainland China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 10:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 10:00pm

Ignorance of geography and history lies at the root of so many current global problems. It breeds xenophobia, and hostility to open trade and open minds while limiting the opportunities of hard-working, well-intentioned, intelligent people.

Hong Kong aims to use its international links as a barrier to the erosion of its separate status. But its ignorance of much of Southeast and South Asia is an indictment of its education system and the current focus of its political and business leaders. Forgotten are the days when Hong Kong had closer financial and commercial links with Southeast Asia than with the Chinese mainland.

I recently endeavoured to buy an English-Malay/Bahasa Indonesia dictionary, scouring commercial and university bookshops to no avail. I could have bought whole shelves of Italian, German, even Croat ones, but not one of the Asian language most widely understood by non-native speakers – some 300 million spread across five Southeast Asian countries, including 200,000 in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong paying price of ignorance about Southeast Asia

Hong Kong’s future: a bridge from China to Southeast Asia

This is the language which for a thousand years before English became widely known was the lingua franca of trade throughout Southeast Asia, and in much of the region’s trade with a China divided by dialects. As far as I can ascertain, no local university offers courses in it. Indeed, undergraduate courses dealing with any aspect of Southeast Asia are conspicuous by their absence. Ditto India.

There is a lot of hot air about Hong Kong’s role in ‘One Belt, One Road’ but the reality is that there is scant genuine interest in the countries along it

There is a lot of hot air about Hong Kong’s role in “One Belt, One Road” but the reality is that there is scant genuine interest in the countries along it. Hong Kong’s bureaucracy is by nature inward-looking and the now-leading business groups – unlike the shipping and textile magnates of the past – make most of their money locally and invest their excess profits in office blocks and water utilities in North America, Australia, and so on.

It is hard not to conclude that this derives not from lack of business opportunities but the ethnic arrogance of a society accustomed to viewing Indonesians and other brown Asians as servants, to be deliberately humiliated by making them camp overnight at the Immigration Department to renew their work permits. Hong Kong’s official racism sets a bad example for an otherwise mostly tolerant public.

With leaders’ attitudes such as these, Hong Kong has scant hope of using these Asian links as an alternative to ever closer economic dependence on the mainland. Meanwhile, links to Japan (and Taiwan) could be harmed if “patriotism” is defined by reference to contrived anti-Japanese sentiments. Hong Kong students could do with a course in modern Asian heroes such as Aung San Suu Kyi, Sukarno and Park Chung-hee, and to understand how Japan was (and is) viewed.

However, Hong Kong’s problems are nothing compared with a Britain ruled by the self-destructive mix of ignorance and arrogance represented by Brexit. A realist would have finessed the half-baked referendum to get some concessions from Brussels or do a deal like Norway and Switzerland. But no. Britain acquired by default a prime minister with scant knowledge of the world outside her cosy middle-class southeast of England, who was nurtured at the breast on jingoist newspapers The Telegraph and Daily Mail. With zero overseas work experience, she is dependent on but refuses to acknowledge the wealth brought by international engagement.

Hong Kong’s official racism sets a bad example for an otherwise mostly tolerant public

Theresa May’s antipathy to foreigners of all kinds was evidenced by her performance for six years as home secretary. Britons should try taking the exam she devised for qualification for citizenship! Foreigners now have every reason, commercial and emotional, for taking their money and their children out of a country so governed and bent on self-destruction. Already, its best universities are failing to attract top talent as EU and other nationals fear for their employment rights or funding.

Much the same might be said of Donald Trump’s America, except that, so far, his even cruder jingoism has been more rhetoric than reality. The US political system is cumbersome and inefficient but it throws up plenty of legislative and judicial roadblocks to outbursts of collective insanity and presidential populism.

Official trade retaliation against the doings of May and Trump will be self-defeating but private actions are another matter – so long as they are genuinely private.

Why foreign companies are shutting shop in China

Which brings us to China. For all its recent claims to be pushing open trade and globalisation, facts tell a different story. Look at the trade punishments being meted out to South Korea for going ahead with the installation of a missile shield. Tourism to Korea has been slashed and nominally unofficial boycotts launched of products of the Lotte Group, which was required to provide land for the defence system. China’s claims to be liberalising foreign investment are not backed up by evidence from foreigners. The current Communist Party propaganda campaign against foreign influence is the antithesis of globalisation. Nor are China’s claims on adjacent seas any more compatible with regional peace and trade development than Trump’s Mexican wall.

There may be no way of inoculating systems and leaders against such nationalism. But more study of geography and (other peoples’) history would help.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator