The discourse of unbridled capitalism in post-war Hong Kong
This chapter examines Hong Kong between 1945 and 1979 as an imagined space in which a British “unbridled capitalism” could flourish even as Britain itself developed a welfare state “consensus”. Drawing on political pamphlets, novels, memoirs, journalistic accounts, politicians’ speeches, and trade organizations’ papers, it argues that Hong Kong was widely seen by expatriates as a place in which British values survived after having been quashed in a “declining” Britain. At the same time, Hong Kong provided a foil against which neo-liberal think tanks could highlight Britain’s need to revive an enterprise culture. In fact, Hong Kong’s status as a laissez-faire economy was overstated, as the government increasingly intervened in such fields as housing, public health, education, and infrastructure. In addition, this meme depended on assumptions that the Chinese were compulsive workers uninterested in leisure, and that Hong Kong Chinese were politically apathetic, both of which collapsed in the late 1960s. Despite these tensions, this distinct idea of a Hong Kong Britishness provided a cultural legacy that survived the collapse of the “British world”. At the same time, by preserving what were often called neo-Victorian economic ideals, Hong Kong constituted a model to which anti-Keynesian British politicians of the 1970s could point.
This brief chapter examines Britain’s the post-colonial legacy in Hong Kong. On the surface, little had changed, with basic institutions (an Executive-based government, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, a bureaucratic civil service, rule of law) enduring. Yet with Occupy Central and what many were calling the Umbrella Revolution unfolding, numerous Hong Kong people—including students too young to have a memory of the Colonial era—argued that too much had changed. To such observers, Hong Kong’s economy had become too dependent on mainland tourism, freedom of the press was gradually eroding, and Hong Kong’s hard-earned special status was evaporating. The chapter reflects on the irony that critiques of the Beijing government—including demands for full democracy—in the second decade of the twenty-first century were often accompanied by nostalgia for the Colonial period.
This book collects eleven original essays in the cultural history of the British Empire since the eighteenth century. It is geographically capacious, taking in the United Kingdom, India, West Africa, Hong Kong, and Australia, as well as sites of informal British influence such as the Ottoman Empire and southern China. The book considers the ways in which British culture circulated within what John Darwin has called the British “world system”. In this, the book builds on existing imperial scholarship while innovating in several ways: it focuses on the movement of ideas and cultural praxis, whereas Darwin has focused mostly on imperial structures —financial, demographic, and military. The book examines the transmission, reception, and adaptation of British culture in the Metropole, the empire and informal colonial spaces, whereas many recent scholars have considered British imperial influence on the Metropole alone. It examines Britain's Atlantic and Asian imperial experiences from the eighteenth to the twentieth century together. Through focusing on political ideology, literary movements, material culture, marriage, and the construction of national identities, the essays demonstrate the salience of culture in making a “British World”.
This chapter introduces the main historiographic themes of the book. It makes a case for understanding the British world system not merely as a contingent series of migrations, economic exchanges, alliances, and military relationships, but also as an arena in which various cultural interchanges took place. These connections—which included literary criticism, humanitarianism, legal cultures, political thought, travel narratives, material culture, and attitudes toward capitalism—helped to cement a “cultural British world” that transcended the frontiers between formal and informal empire, and between empire, metropole, and the wider world.