Europe in China/Chapter 22


A Short Summary.

1854 to 1882.

The epoch in Hongkong's history which opens with the administration of Sir John Bowring (1854) and closes with that of Sir J. P. Hennessy (1882) is characterized by the severance (since March, 1857) of the ties which had united the interests of the Colony with the Imperial policy of Her Majesty's Government in China. When the successive Governors of Hongkong ceased to act as Her Majesty's diplomatic agents in China, it was not merely that the connection of the Colony and its Governors with the Foreign Office ceased and determined. The change involved the subordination of Hongkong's interests to the desire, always uppermost in the mind of H.M. Minister in Peking, to keep on good terms with Hongkong's implacable enemies, the Chinese Mandarins. The first Governor of this period, Sir J. Bowring, was not only deprived of the office of H.M. Representative in China, but found his successors in that office to sacrifice the welfare of the Colony to a maudlin policy of cringing subservience to China as a fancied equal of Europe and a supposed great and mighty Empire. And the last Governor of this period, Sir J. P. Hennessy, whose one desire was to obtain that same post, exhibits the strange spectacle of a Governor of Hongkong deliberately acting on the false assumption that the Imperial interests of Great Britain and of peaceful relations with China are irreconcilably hostile to the local interests of the Colony.

The earliest portion of this narrative is occupied with the story of that struggle between China and Europe, in which for two long centuries, Manchu arrogance and tyranny has, thanks to the apathy of the East-India Company's Directors, the upper hand over the representatives of European commerce and civilization, and keeps them locked up within the narrow limits of the Canton Factories. The latest portion of this volume exhibits that same Manchu tyranny, undeterred by repeated defeats and humiliations, because aided and abetted by H.M. Ministers and Consuls in China, surrounding the hated Free Trade Colony of Hongkong by a narrow circle of Customs stations and maintaining an effective blockade which to the present day disgraces British relations with China. All honour to Great Britain's magnanimous forbearance in the interest of what her Crown lawyers consider to be the just demands of international law. Covered by that law, Mandarindom still seeks to strangle the Free Trade movement of the Colony and still slanders the fair name of the Colony by regarding that amount of smuggling, which everywhere in the world naturally results from oppressive and irregular taxation and peculation, as an inherent vice of the native population of Hongkong. But a divine Nemesis is watching over all these things and Mandarindom will eventually discover its mistake when British patience is exhausted. An effective solution of the problem can, however, hardly be expected so long as the present division between the Colonial and Foreign Offices continues. This division which, in its practical working in the Far East, bristles with unavoidable jealousies and irreconcilable antagonisms, impedes the natural process of bringing China into subordination to Europe. The furtherance of that process demands a special Ministry charged with the direction of all Her Majesty's possessions and interests in the East and bringing British Colonial and Imperial policy into a working and effective unity.

Historically speaking it seems undeniable that, as in the days of the East-India Company at Canton, so in the more recent history of Hongkong, European merchants have ever been the leaders and the Chinese merchants the indispensable hangers-on and go-betweens of the China Trade, and that this twofold commerce made immense strides for the benefit of both parties from the moment when it came under the impulse of the mighty spirit of free trade, which fused the interests of European and Chinese merchants into indissoluble unity. If we view the history of the China Trade from the standpoint of Europe's relations with China, it is clear that the tendency, which God put into the movement that commenced at Canton two centuries ago and which resulted in the establishment of this British Colony, was the inchoative union of Europe and China, by the subordination of the latter to the former, and this by means of free trade coupled with enlightened and humane local government. The genius of British free trade and political liberty constitutes unmistakeably the vital element in the historic evolution of Hongkong. Hence it is that co-operation with this divine tendency of things is the unalterable condition of success. Every measure, every event in the history of Hongkong, that is in harmony with this general innate tendency, is in part a fulfilment of Hongkong's mission in the history of the universe.

That this view is correct, may be inferred from the historic fact that nothing ever seriously endangered the existence of this Colony but tampering with the free trade palladium of Hongkong. Few of the Governors of this epoch recognized the importance of this truth, and among the merchants even there was often entire forgetfulness of this principle. Sir A. Kennedy, no doubt, thought he was doing the right thing when he introduced lighthouse dues, and the mercantile community submitted to the measure without a murmur. Sir R. MacDonnell came near the truth when he saw the essential importance of Hongkong in its convenience as a commercial depot and recommended that the shipping interests be better looked after. The only Governor of this period whose eyes were fully open on this point, was Sir J. Bowring. The following words, taken from one of his published dispatches, are worth remembering. 'Believing that the satisfactory development of our prosperity is mainly due to the emancipation of ail shipping and trade from fiscal vexations and exactions, I trust no custom-house machinery will ever be introduced, either for the collection of tariff or harbour dues or for any purpose which may check the free ingress and egress of all shipping to and from the port nor the free transfer of commodities from hand to hand. Hongkong presents another example of the elasticity and potency of unrestricted commerce which has more than counterbalanced the barrenness of the soil, the absence of agricultural and manufacturing industry, the disadvantages of its climate and every impediment which would clog its progress.'

The greatest revolution that ever upheaved the affairs of Hongkong came from a purely commercial source, from the sphere of its shipping interests. I refer to the opening of the Suez Canal. For several years after that momentous event, Hongkong commerce seemingly followed its old impetus in much the same lines as before. But step by step it was seen that a change had come over Hongkong's dream, amounting to a complete revolution. The markets in England for silk, tea and other Chinese exports had been entirely ruled by the prices paid in China. Now the price realised in England became the norm and guide of all purchases to be made in China. As to imports into China, the change wrought, by bringing the English manufacturer into closer connection with the Chinese consumer, was equally formidable. The China Trade now drifted into the hands of home capitalists. Successful trading on credit, formerly so common in Hongkong, became year by year rarer and large monied firms only appeared to profit in the long run.

But the remarkable thing is that even the political and strategical importance of Hongkong was immensely enhanced by that same commercial event. It was the opening of the Suez Canal which placed Hongkong in line with Gibraltar and Malta and made it combine their functions as applied to the Far East. Hongkong now dominates the China Sea as Malta dominates the Mediterranean and strategically closes the road to India from the East as Gibraltar opens the gateway from the West. As the opening of the Suez Canal, with its consequent increase of European trade with China, enhanced the importance of Hongkong as a commercial emporium, so the universal employment of steamers in the navies of all the great Maritime Powers, which likewise followed from the opening of the Suez Canal, gave Hongkong a new important function to fulfil as the only coaling station of the British navy in the Far East. But, as it took Hongkong merchants several years to realize how much nearer, to London, Hongkong now was, so it took Her Majesty's Government and the British public several decades of years to realize the increased political and strategical importance Hongkong had assumed, by that same commercial event, in the general scheme of British Colonial defence, and its consequent need of first class fortifications.

As to the individual Governors of this epoch, one feels tempted to say that apparently 'each man begins the world afresh and the last man repeats the blunders of the first.' However, it is remarkable how little really depended upon the character, wisdom or energy, of any of these exalted individuals. Sir J. Bowring, the man of ideas, had rare capabilities and was brimming over with fruitful schemes, but, to use Lord Clarendon's words, 'events which could not be foreseen and which got (or rather all along were) beyond his control' left him stranded powerless. Sir H. Robinson, Fortune's favourite, was apparently the most successful Governor of Hongkong, thanks to an adventitious prosperity of commerce, but if his administration had fallen into his successor's time of financial insolvency, he would have been deprived of all the means of success and left as helpless as his successor. Sir R. MacDonnell, the autocrat, was perhaps the greatest, most energetic and powerful, Governor that ever ruled over this much-ruled Colony, but adverse circumstances, bad times, opposition on the part of the colonists and dissensions with the Colonial Office rulers, clipped the wings of his usefulness and success. Sir A. Kennedy, the amiable, is the model of a successful and most popular Governor who achieved local immortality by doing as little as possible whilst making himself personally pleasant to the Colony as well to the Downing Street officials. As to Sir J. P. Hennessy, the less said the better. His acts speak powerfully enough. The centre of his world was he himself. But with all the crowd of dark and bright powers that were wrestling within him, he could not help doing some good and the Colony emerged out of the ordeal of his administration practically unscathed. No, what makes or mars the fortunes of Hongkong is not the wisdom or foolishness, the goodness or badness of its Governors. There is an indomitable vitality within and a Supreme Governor above this British Colony, and these powers irresistibly push on and control the evolution of Hongkong until its destiny be fulfilled in accordance with a plan which is not of man's making.

Several important social problems were taken up during this period, in the case of the gambling question, first investigated by Sir J. Bowring, worked out by Sir R. MacDonnell in a spirited but unsuccessful manner, and religiously eschewed by his successors who, however, did not escape the curse of this rampant evil, all that can be said is that the Sphinx will have to solve its own riddle, for no one seems able or courageous enough to deal with the problem. As to the Contagious Diseases question, a solution was sought, in a more or less half-hearted manner, by several Governors of this epoch, but, as no great results were expected, public expectation was not seriously disappointed. Strange to say, the problem of municipal government, raised by the Parliamentary Committee of 1847, and diplomatically handled by Sir G. Bonham, was allowed by the mercantile community to remain dormant through the whole of this epoch. Stranger still, the only Governor who alluded to the subject was autocratic Sir R. MacDonnell who suggested to H.M. Government that the Colony should be allowed, as far as possible, 'the liberty to expend, on local improvements and works, all the available public income that can be raised from the community for these purposes.' But the strangest thing was that, while the foreign community remained silent on the subject, the Chinese residents came forward of their own accord and requested the organisation of a distinctly Chinese Municipal Council for their own particular benefit, and obtained a Police of their own and a consultative voice as to the management, by the Registrar General, of Chinese affairs. As to a British Municipal Council, it has to be noted, that the history of this period emphatically contradicts one great objection to it, which Sir G. Bonham formulated by asserting that out here in the East there is no leisured class and that men of standing possess neither time nor inclination to devote to the interests of the public. The long continued and varied activity in purely public affairs, displayed during this period by individuals like J. Dent, Ph. Ryrie, J. Whittall, W. Keswick and others, and most particularly the large share of attention and time which the Hongkong Chamber of Commerce devoted to questions of general policy, gives the lie to the assertion that the commercial men of this Colony are unwilling to sacrifice their time and their strength to the management of communal affairs.

As regards the general attitude of the Chinese community, it seems that, in proportion as the leading Chinese residents learned, towards the end of this epoch, to understand the principles of British communal liberty, there appeared among them a tendency to retire into their own shell, deliberately refusing any identification with the European community. The persistent refusal to adopt European costume or English ways of living, the uniform aversion to participation in local politics coupled with a deep-seated anxiety to keep on good terms with Chinese Mandarindom even when it blockaded the port to throttle their trade, the steady increase of Chinese joint-stock companies from which foreign investors were jealously excluded, the readiness of secret combination to retaliate against unpopular Government measures by a general strike,—all these symptoms of Chinese clannish exclusivism, natural enough in people whose just liberties have for centuries been invaded by despotic rulers, clearly indicate that on the Chinese side there is, as yet, no desire to see the chasm that still separates Chinese and European life in this Colony, bridged over.

The educational history of this period is characterized by the continued subordination of English to Chinese teaching and by the deliberate abandonment, on the part of the Government, the foreign community and some of the missionaries, of the principle of religious education. Half-hearted religionism had clearly failed during the preceding period, but secular education now tentatively pursued was likewise bound to fail so long as insufficient attention was bestowed on a general promotion of the English language. There was, during this period, hardly a thought of aiming at that regeneration of the Chinese community which would raise them to the level of the Europeans. The regeneration of a community can only come from the education of the individual and until English education is fostered and honoured in Hongkong more than it has been hitherto, the Colony will lag behind its full measure of unity and strength.

So far, however, the history of Hongkong has on the whole been the gentle dawning of a bright success. Our hope of the future is but the memory of the past reversed. Hongkong has clearly fulfilled, up to this point, the purpose of its establishment as the guardian of the interests of Europe and China. Notwithstanding all its faults and shortcomings, this British Colony has set before the people and Mandarins of China a praiseworthy example of free trade principles and humane government. Floreat semper!