Events in Hong Kong are set to dominate the news in 1997 as it passes from British to Chinese rule at midnight on June 30. As one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world changes hands, 156 years of British control will come to an end.
Media emphasis will be on the human rights of Hong Kong’s 6.2 million residents and the future of the Hong Kong economy, one of the world’s strongest. Little notice will be taken of a much deeper meaning and symbolism in this pivotal event as the 20th century draws to a close.
June 1997 marks the expiration of Britain’s 99-year lease of Hong Kong’s New Territories. Of special interest to both Britain and Hong Kong is that the same month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest celebrations in world history, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It’s no coincidence that the 99-year lease on the New Territories began a few months later. No official celebration of the jubilee will take place in Hong Kong.
James Morris, in the second volume of his history of the British Empire, vividly describes the Diamond Jubilee: “It was the largest Empire in the history of the world, comprising nearly a quarter of the land mass of the earth, and a quarter of the population. Victoria herself was a Queen-Empress of such aged majesty that some of her simpler subjects considered her divine, and slaughtered propitiatory goats before her image. The sixtieth anniversary of her accession to the throne was being celebrated as a festival of imperial strength, splendor and unity—a mammoth exhibition of power, in a capital that loved things to be colossal” (Pax Britannica, publisher, city, year, page number).
Morris continues: “The crowds . . . waited in proud excitement. They were citizens of a kingdom which, particularly in its own estimation, was of unique consequence in the world. The nineteenth century had been pre-eminently Britain’s century, and the British saw themselves still as top dogs. Ever since the triumphant conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars they had seemed to be arbiters of the world’s affairs . . .” (p. XXX). Hence, the Pax Britannica (British peace), the title of the book.
“By June 1897 all this vigor and self-esteem, all this famous history, had been fused into an explosive emotional force . . . The Empire had been growing steadily throughout the century, generally without much public excitement, but since the 1870’s it had expanded so violently that the statistics and reference books could scarcely keep up, and were full of addenda and hasty footnotes” (Morris, p. XXX).
Dismantling of an empire
Two world wars and 50 years later, almost to the month, the British began dismantling “the empire on which the sun never set,” granting the Indian subcontinent independence in August 1947. Another 50 years has passed, and now the British flag is to be lowered on the last major colonial possession. In the last 50 years the once mighty British Empire has given birth to more than 50 new nations.
In one century, Britain has passed from being the undisputed leader of the world to a mere small island off the coast of Europe. Where it once wielded the might to subdue and even rule more populous and larger nations, and to demand of the huge land mass of China this small colony off the southern coast of Guangdong province, Britain now struggles to make ends meet. It’s been a long, slow decline, reminiscent of ancient Rome.
Why? What lessons are there for other powerful nations today? What does it all mean?
The turn of the century coincided with the death of Queen Victoria. Although Britain was still the world’s superpower, its former colonies in North America, the United States, rapidly advanced to greatness and preeminence in the new century. The two Anglo-Saxon powers between them have dominated the global economic and political system for 200 years, promoting their ideas of free trade, free enterprise, free speech and democracy, sometimes imposing them upon others against their will. No one alive can remember a world not led by one of these two powers.
But the last 50 years have seen a gradual slide in their influence and might. Observing this trend, Joel Kotkin, a writer on global economic issues for The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, wrote in 1992 that “the gradual erosion of the Anglo-American hegemony over the past few decades stems largely from the erosionof many of the core values that previously drove its ascendance” (The Tribes, publisher, city, 1992, p. XXX, emphasis added throughout).
Disappearance of core values
What values is he referring to?
“. . . This British ascendancy was propelled largely by the powerful moral and cultural influence of Calvinism. Much like the Jews, the British . . . were animated by a sense of specialness through the discipline of their faith. Calvinism . . . also fostered attitudes conducive both to trade and to an interest in the acquisition of technical knowledge” (Kotkin, p. XXX).
Strong religious values of Judeo-Christian societies contributed greatly to the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy on both sides of the Atlantic and throughout the English-speaking diaspora. An ancient king recognized this principle some 3,000 years ago. “Righteousness exalts a nation,” wrote Solomon (Proverbs 14:34 Proverbs 14:34Righteousness exalts a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.
American King James Version×).
Conversely, the absence of religious and family values hastens a nation’s decline. That same Proverb concludes that “sin is a reproach to any people.” This has been the case with both Britain and the United States, leaders in the dubious category of domestic disruptions. As British journalist Brian Appleyard wrote, “many now feel that our civilisation [the Western world], lacking a moral and spiritual centre, may be in terminal decline” (The Sunday Times, Aug. 11, 1996).
It becomes clear that some of those old Anglo-Saxon virtues are being emulated by the rising new nations of the Far East: the Chinese, for example, in China itself and in places such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, where economic growth rates are the envy of the West.
The English-speaking nations still play a major role in the world’s economic system. “A century has passed since the apogee of the British empire [Victoria’s Jubilee], but the nations it spawned—the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—still account for thirteen of the world’s fifteen largest companies, over half the GDP [gross domestic product] of the world’s seven leading industrialized countries, and by far the largest portion of overseas foreign investment stock, more than Japan and Germany combined.
“Similarly, the English-speaking countries also account for by far the vast preponderance of all inbound direct investment and the majority capitalization of the world’s stock markets” (Kotkin, p.XXX). The descendants of the ancient Israelite tribe of Joseph have been the prophesied “fruitful bough” (Genesis 49:22 Genesis 49:22Joseph is a fruitful bough, even a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall:
American King James Version×), surpassing in wealth and power all other nations.
Shifting power on the world stage
Political, economic and military power, however, are never permanent. Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese rule is symbolic of the transfer of political, economic and military power away from the English-speaking powers in the latter half of the 20th century. Although under different circumstances, it is reminiscent of America’s defeat in Vietnam—the transfer of power from the old world order to the new.
Hard work, individualism and entrepreneurial spirit, combined with strong family values, are all contributing to Asian strength even as a lack of those values erodes Anglo-American dominance.
After 1945 a massive redirection of national resources into welfarism inevitably led to economic and military decline. Twenty years later, having failed to learn any lessons from British experience, the United States started down the same path with President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
One of America’s founding fathers and greatest heroes, Thomas Jefferson, warned of the dire consequences of such policies when he spoke out against a universal franchise: “If the common people get their hands on the public purse, the republic won’t last a generation.”
A universal franchise inevitably led to increasing demands on the public treasury; people want more money and more government-funded benefits. Politicians compete with each other to make the biggest and most generous promises. Is it a surprise that national debt and lessening competitiveness are the result?
Lessons from new economic powerhouses
For all the media attention to the spread of democracy throughout the world, scant attention is given to the phenomenon that the fastest-growing economies are not democracies like the United States and Britain. They are free-market economies, but their people do not have the power to vote themselves increasing benefits. Nor is the perceived need so great because of their stronger family structure.
Another factor contributes greatly to the rise of Asian economic power. Just as the migration of British peoples throughout the world led to Anglo-Saxon dominance, increased immigration of Asian communities into mostly English-speaking countries has led to the development of non—Anglo-Saxon mercantile empires composed of the Chinese and Indian diasporas.
Chinese and Indian communities thrive throughout the former colonies of the British Empire and the United States, boosting export sales back home, just as was the case with their British and American predecessors until recently. Proportionately more Indians live in the United Kingdom today than there were British people in India at the height of British imperial rule. These are growing international trading networks, successful because of strong family ties and traditional Asian values of thrift and hard work.
Economic power has been passing from Anglo-Saxons to Asians and Europeans for decades—not just in former British colonies but also in the British, American and Australian homelands. Now Hong Kong can be added to the list.
Midnight June 30 is only the formal handover of power. Real power, economic power, has been progressively transferring since World War II. Great powers seem to rise to towering heights only to inevitably decline. The 19th century belonged to Great Britain, the 20th to the United States. Perhaps century 21 is destined to be dominated by yet other superpowers. GN