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Hong Kong History Notes
August 18, 2010
by William P. Meyers

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I just finished reading Frank Welsh's A History of Hong Kong. The book is quite detailed and competently written from a British point of view. The story of Hong Kong is peripheral to my project of writing a history of the U.S. War Against Asia. It contained a few details of United States history I did not know. Welsh's history did illustrate how nations like China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines had already developed their responses to imperialism (economic, military, and cultural) before many Americans concerned themselves with Asia.

On page 326 we have mention that in 1898 Great Britain was trying to patch up relations with the United States, "which in 1895 had been brought to their nadir by US Secretary of State Olney's claim that the US was 'practically sovereign' over the American continent." Checking my Bailey's American Pageant, seldom shy about U.S. imperialism, I found that President Grover Cleveland picked Richard Olney as U.S. Attorney General; he is described as a "stocky and conservative" man whose contribution to office was a calculated failure to enforce the Interstate Commerce Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In 1895 the British has a dispute with Venezuela over the boundaries with British Guiana [now Guyana]. Bailey characterizes Olney's "smashing note" on the subject [he had been promoted to Secretary of State] to the British as "flouting the Monroe Doctrine," and says Olney "informed the number-one naval power that the United States was now calling the tune in the Western Hemisphere." The Brits "denied the relevance of the Monroe Doctrine." War seemed inevitable, but eventually calmer personalities prevailed, and the Brits got the lines they wanted drawn by an arbitration committee.

Racism in the United States had an impact on Hong Kong's history. Around the turn of the century (1900-ish) to exclude Chinese and other Asians from the U.S. and its newly acquired possessions of Hawaii and the Philippines. Secretary of State James Blaine [Welsh has Blair, a typo, page 345] claimed Chinese immigrants brought "the seeds of moral and physical disease, of destitution, and of death." When Russia fought Japan in 1904-05 (and lost) Chinese passions were provoked, and in Hong Kong "a general boycott of American goods was observed, and American cigarettes were publicly destroyed."

As I mentioned in Hong Kong Thoughts, on page 424 we learn that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's inheritance (and connections), in part, came from his grandfather Warren Delano's partnership in Russell's of Hong Kong's opium trade.

Urged by the United States to give back Hong Kong to China after World War II, while allowing its administration by international bodies, the British countered with the idea that a general settlement could include the Dutch (Indonesia), the American colony of the Philippines, and even Hawaii. [page 426]

After the Chinese Communist Party and army drove American puppet dictator Chiang Kai-shek off the Chinese mainland, the U.S. instituted an embargo, which included a boycott of all mainland Chinese goods. When the Chinese entered the Korean Civil War the U.S. grew very determined about enforcing the trade restraints, even sending inspectors to Hong Kong to make sure that it did not act as a loophole for U.S. trade with communist China. [page 451]

Another theme of A History of Hong Kong is the lack of democracy under British rule. Americans are always told they were allied with Britain and France during the World Wars because those two nations were democracies. But the British Empire and the French Empire were not democracies, with some exceptions for white settler states like Canada and Australia. Non-white people were dictated too. Towards the end of the British occupation of Hong Kong they decided that instead of turning over a nice tidy dictatorship, they would inject a democracy into China. But they could not really get that together, allowing only a small percentage of officeholders to be elected directly by the general population. More on that topic in later blog entries.

Buy the book: A History of Hong Kong by Frank Welsh


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