This old Chinese trading port can teach Hong Kong all about silk roads, and about tolerance

Openness and diversity come hand in hand with cross-border trade. As rancour and division grow in the city, that is worth remembering

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 September, 2017, 10:47pm

During a recent visit to Quanzhou, a booming business city in Fujian province, I was struck by a sudden realisation. If Hong Kong can claim to be “Asia’s world city” with its reputation as a meeting point for East and West, then this seaport facing the Taiwan Strait could have justifiably laid claim to the title of “China’s world city” hundreds of years ago, as the starting point of the old maritime silk route.

As China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” becomes a national and even global attraction, a major Hong Kong government-led conference on the subject was held early last week. Attended by senior officials and business heavyweights, it was the second such seminar and is going to become an annual event.

Indeed, our city needs to study more, and clarify, what part it can play in this China-initiated strategic plan to open up international trade along a new silk route.

Major discussions have so far only focused on the plan’s business and geopolitical perspectives, with little attention paid to the impact in terms of shaping the diversified culture which, history tells us, comes with booming cross-border trade.

In this regard, Quanzhou’s history is quite telling. Many Hongkongers may know little of this port, but the politically and economically influential “Fujian clan” in our city is well known.

One of the most prominent among the clan is the Sze Chi-ching family. In an interview with the Post in June, Sze revealed his decades-long friendship with President Xi Jinping. Xi worked in Fujian for years and tried hard to attract overseas investment, including from Hong Kong.

Xi’s experience in Fujian could well be one reason for him recognising how the ancient maritime silk route contributed to achieving one of the most prosperous periods in China’s history.

Now, with Xi’s strong backing, the belt and road project is in full swing, but what does it mean to Hong Kong, besides business opportunities? Quanzhou can be a good reference.

What struck me the most during my trip was the inclusiveness and openness of this ancient port. It once saw an influx of Arab merchants who brought with them Muslim religion and culture. It may have been exotic, even strange, to the Chinese at the time, but Quanzhou warmly embraced them all.

Many of the Hui minority residents today are descendants of the Arabs. The first Islamic place of worship built in China, the Qingjing Mosque, also known as the Ashab Mosque, is still a centre for prayer and attracts plenty of visitors from home and abroad.

Inside the mosque, a replica of an imperial decree to protect Islam by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty is still on display, reminding people how open China once was. The enlightened Yongle Emperor was the ruler who sent the famous Zheng He on his historic “seven voyages” to the West.

Against such a backdrop, ancient Quanzhou saw a harmonious confluence of diverse religions, including Christianity, Islam and Manichaeism, together with different cultures.

History is a mirror. The lesson is always that only with openness and tolerance of differences can a place develop.

As a dynamic metropolis itself, Hong Kong should not just aim for the economic gains offered by the country’s grand strategic trade plan, but also reflect on how to revive the open-mindedness and inclusiveness it was once known for and proud of.

In today’s heavily politicised Hong Kong it is a goal worth pursuing, for our city’s well-being.