Magazine article New Internationalist

The People of T'ong: John Charles Takes a Sideways Look at the Fate of Empires as the Handover of Hong Kong to China Arrives

Magazine article New Internationalist

The People of T'ong: John Charles Takes a Sideways Look at the Fate of Empires as the Handover of Hong Kong to China Arrives

Article excerpt

The people of T'ong

John Charles takes a sideways look at the fate of empires as the 'handover' of Hong Kong to China arrives.

STATES AND EMPIRES build up territory by force and then justify their gains by resorting to nebulous concepts like 'manifest destiny'. Or they seem to have existed always and feel no need for explanations. The Roman politician Cato the Elder ended every speech urging the destruction of Carthage merely on account of its trading rivalry with the Republic. But the Roman general Scipio wept as his men levelled the city and enslaved Carthage's inhabitants; more percipient than most, he feared such a precedent would echo down the ages and bring disaster to Rome.

Few great empires have so intelligently predicted their own demise as the Romans, least of all those whose territories are conveniently continuous - suggestive of natural boundaries - such as the German Third Reich, the Sweden of Gustavus Adolphus, the Russia of Peter the Great, the United States during its westward expansion, or China throughout its magnificently recorded past. Ironically, China has been given its size, shape and national consciousness largely by outsiders: by 'foreign' dynasties like the Qin or the Ming (1368 - 1644), or in response to invasions such as the audacious British seizure of Hong Kong in 1842.

When Commissioner Lin was sent by the Imperial Government in Beijing to 'investigate' the opium trade, he went to what was then one of the most remote parts of the Empire, inhabited - according to the Grand Geographer of the Imperial Household - by the T'ong race. Only a few bewildered fishermen observed the first British landing.

The city of Kwangjou (Canton) was soon deeply involved in the British opium trade. The Imperial Commissar reported that 'the Men of T'ong are dissipated and ineducable'. Civilization was a difficult import from Beijing.

Similar attitudes prevail today. China is like post - industrial Britain in reverse: the North has the authority, the command, the historical consciousness and the power born of snobbery; the South has the guts, the energy, the wealth created by risk - taking and derring - do.

In 1949 Chinese armies swept the Kuomintang virtually out of the continent and, for reasons known only to themselves, halted just before crossing the muddy Shun Chun River. On the other side was British Hong Kong, an impertinent 'scab on the backside of China', according to Chiang Kai - Shek. It had been his clear intention to take Hong Kong back. But while the British Government fussed over the strategic importance of this under - populated backwater, it nonetheless reinforced its presence in Hong Kong with 140,000 troops and a large naval force. …

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