From a nationalistic perspective, imperialism did not have any positive impacts on the colonized nations. Even in cases where it appears that such countries benefited from their colonial masters, nationalists would term it an accidental occurrence – a by-product of the imperialists’ pursuit of their self-centered interests. However, colonialists would argue that their presence in their colonies was meant to fast-track civilization and development in those regions.
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Consequently, without their involvement, the contemporary world would be lagging behind by several decades in terms of modernity and development. These two opposing sides have been a source of controversy in the debate about colonization and its legacy on the colonies. One way to understand this issue is by looking at the legacy of imperialism in former empires to assess the role that colonialism has played in the advancement or stagnation of the affected countries.
This paper seeks to understand the legacy of empires on colonies, specifically majoring in the British in Hong Kong and the French in Vietnam as case studies. The paper will mainly focus on the British Empire in Hong Kong while drawing comparisons from the French in Vietnam to understand the causal mechanism of the empires’ involvement and the modern state of the involved nations.
The British Legacy in Hong Kong
The British colonized Hong Kong for more than 150 years until 1997 when the country was handed over to mainland China. Therefore, given this prolonged occupation of the British in the region, it would be naïve to draw generalizations or make a blanket judgment of what imperialism achieved or failed to achieve. For instance, the last days of British occupation in Hong Kong were full of attainment, but this aspect should not be used to reconstruct what happened in over more than a century of occupation.
In all its former colonies, apart from Palestine, the British would leave an elected leadership and a seemingly functional legislature, and the same case applied to Hong Kong. While this approach to start decolonization is laudable, the British administration, in almost all cases would make a mistake that, in the long term, would undermine the stability and achievements allegedly marked its legacy of success.
For instance, one of the conditions that the British gave to China when handing over Hong Kong in 1997 was that China would oversee the transition of Hong Kong into becoming a full democracy by 2007. However, up to date, Hong Kong is part of what China calls a Special Administrative Region (SAR). In other words, Hong Kong has not become a full democracy as envisioned in the Basic Law document, which is the official agreement between the British administration and China concerning the future of this former colony (Boyajian and Cook 2019).
This failure by the British to ensure a successful transition affects Hong Kong even to date. For instance, in 2019, the country witnessed one of its worst street demonstrations with pro-democrats calling for the sovereignty of the country from what they see as authoritarianism from China. However, this is just one example of the British legacy in Hong Kong. Therefore, to understand the British legacy in Hong Kong a thorough investigation of democracy and economic development should be considered.
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Economic development and the underlying models are some of the parameters that are used to gauge the progress of a nation, thus it would be an appropriate starting point in understanding the British legacy in Hong Kong. Currently, Hong Kong is classified among developed free-market economies based on low taxation, strong international financial markets, and a preferred destination for international investors.
The British take credit for this development and prides themselves on having set systems that propelled Hong Kong to its contemporary status. The British administration in the country, especially in the post-World War II era, allegedly adopted the popular positive non-interventionism to govern its economic policy in the region (Chan 1997). Therefore, the country’s economic success has been associated with free trade and free port coupled with a low tax regime, open markets, minimum regulation, and free flow of information and capital to facilitate free enterprise and for the private sector to maximize profits.
However, Chan (1997) refutes these allegations by stating that a closer look at the economic situation in the country reveals an “interventionist regime whose actions did not always conform to its projected laissez-faire façade” (574). In other words, the British always played a central and direct role in the country’s economic aspects. The colonial government controlled almost every sector including the legal, political, and social institutions that facilitate economic growth.
The regime also was in charge of all valuable resources in the country. According to Chan (1997), advancing the positive non-interventionism narrative, which is still used today, served several purposes to the advantage of Hong Kong. First, this official stance of free markets lured the international business community to invest in the country, which significantly boosted Hong Kong’s economic prospects. Domestically, “limited government with a laissez-faire facade aimed at minimizing the colonial state’s role as an active protector, provider and promoter of many community needs” (Chan 1997, 574). Consequently, this approach reduced the expectations that would be associated with what was seemingly becoming an affluent society.
Therefore, society had limited acclaim on government services, which created the right environment for the colonial administration to keep a low tax regime and curtail bureaucracy. Similarly, this minimalist approach of a government not interfering with the economy encouraged the growth of the private sector. This strategy meant that the private sector would be seen to take the largest share of the economic proceedings, thus discouraging the influx of immigrants into the country from mainland China (Chan 1997).
Ultimately, the involvement of the British administration in the day-to-day running of Hong Kong’s economic activities, albeit in the background, helped to shape the country’s contemporary success. Currently, the Hong Kong government continues to reap from the economic system established by the British colonial administration. As such, the country is classified among the most open regions to international trade with no restrictions on foreign banks. Business freedom in the country is protected under functional and friendly regulatory laws.
However, the arising question from this seemingly central role of British involvement in the success of Hong Kong’s economic success is whether such interventions were by design or out of necessity. Hong Kong’s colonialism is unique because the British retained its presence in the country long after almost all other countries around the world had achieved independence.
According to Ziltener, Kunzler, and Walter (2017), towards the end of colonization in the 1970s and 1980s, the British administration was concerned about the legacy that it would leave in its colonies. Therefore, as compared to other colonialists, “British colonies experienced a gradual and orderly transfer of administration” (Ziltener, Kunzler, and Walter 2017, 165). Therefore, Hong Kong benefited from the growing concern of the British about its legacy.
This assertion explains why towards its last years of Hong Kong’s occupation, the British became benevolent. This action was taken to ensure that the situation in the country reflected the empire’s legacy in other former colonies, which had gained independence almost two decades earlier. As such, it suffices to argue that Hong Kong’s economic benefits bestowed by colonialism were born out of necessity, not by design. Nevertheless, despite the motive behind the concerted efforts to ensure that the country succeeded economically, it is clear that the British legacy in Hong Kong lives on and the country’s current success is partly attributable to colonialism.
Based on the economic success story of the British legacy in Hong Kong, it might be tempting to assume that imperialism everywhere else had similar effects. Therefore, it is important to compare the British and French empires to assess whether they both had similar outcomes in terms of their legacies. This paper will focus on the economic impacts of French colonialism in Indochina, specifically Vietnam. Kwon (2011) argues that French colonization “embedded political, social, and economic institutions that have not been conducive for the long-term development of former French East Asian colonies” (60).
Therefore, even though the majority of countries in East Asia achieved considerable economic growth rates since independence, former French colonies in the region lagged behind. Cumings (2002) notes that it took the French almost 20 years to colonize Vietnam from 1856 to 1885 and it occupied the country until 1945. Afterward, a thirty-year war ensued, ravaged the country up to 1975, and by this time, Vietnam was among the most impoverished nations in the world.
Immediately after its occupation, French policies introduced an extractive economy – “in effect a money economy without nothing much else, tying Mekong Delta rice prices to the world market and thus upsetting the annual peasant ‘round of time’ and drowning marginal subsistence farmers” (Cumings 2002, 830). In other words, the French did not adopt an integrative and progressive economic approach in Vietnam and by the time the administration was contemplating a comprehensive way forward, World War II broke out.
The end of the war would signal the end of the French colonization of Vietnam and thus the fate of its legacy in the country was sealed. As opposed to the British in Hong Kong, which created policies to encourage international and domestic investment, the French adopted the civil law that sought to expand state power at the expense of the development of the domestic economy (Kwon 60). Similarly, while the British adopted free trade, the French colonies suffered from mercantile economic policies that highly restricted international trade in the affected countries. Finally, the French applied a discriminative education system that could not benefit the locals to advance their economic pursuits.
However, it could be argued that the French are not to be blamed entirely for the economic problems facing Vietnam even in the current times. For instance, Cumings (2002) argues that in 1975 when the Vietnam civil war ended, other countries in the region, such as North Korea and Taiwan, had already progressed economically. Therefore, in 1975, Vietnam found itself in the same position that North Korea was in the 1940s.
Consequently, it could be argued that the prolonged civil war was to be blamed partly for the poor economic prospects in the country. However, it should be remembered that the French were directly responsible for the rise of the communist movement in the country, which later led to the civil war. Goodwin (2001) argues that French withdrawal from Vietnam may not have resulted in Communist rule, even in the northern half of that country, if a strong, non-Communist force had been able to step into the breach; but not such force existed” (108). In other words, instead of creating a transition government before leaving like the case of the British, the French left a void, which created a loophole for the birth of a civil war.
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According to McDougall (2011), countries that had better and more functional institutions and less distorted economic policies at the end of colonization were bound to outperform their counterparts that lacked the same characteristics. This assertion is true based on what has been discussed in this paper concerning British-Hong Kong and French-Vietnam cases. Therefore, the contrast between the British and the French legacy on their former colonies is clear, especially in terms of economic development. However, despite the benefits that Hong Kong has been reaping by virtue of being a British colony, there are several problems associated with imperialism.
One of the most regrettable shortcomings of British rule in Hong Kong is the lack of a clear framework on how the country would achieve full democratization. The British imperialism in any of its colonies was never concerned with democratization. In any case, the use of “democracy” and “imperialism” in the same sentence sounds oxymoronic. The fact that the British occupied Hong Kong is a violation of the country’s sovereignty, and thus locals should not have expected a better outcome. However, as mentioned earlier, the case of Hong Kong is peculiar given that it was colonized in what would be termed as modern times.
Therefore, one of the things that the British should have ensured before leaving was to facilitate the full democratization process of the country. However, the British failed terribly on this issue and Hong Kong continues to suffer even to date from this failure, either by commission or omission.
Chan (1999) posits, “The post-War British plans for limited democratic reform were shelved by an unsympathetic Governor Grantham and the colonial tycoon elites who, as hand-picked British appointees, were definitely not legitimate representatives of local majority interests” (578). Therefore, the British missed numerous chances to initiate and promote the democratization process in the country. The best it could do was hand over that responsibility to mainland China through a commitment captured in the Basic Law document.
However, China has not honored the promise to ensure the full democratization of Hong Kong by 2007. Consequently, the country has been experiencing cycles of mass protests similar to what has been witnessed in ongoing fatal protests that started on June 9, 2019. Therefore, on the issue of democracy, Hong Kong is a bitter legacy of British imperialism and failure to advance the interests of the majority. It could be argued that the British auctioned Hong Kong to China, which has overshadowed its good deeds of creating a robust economic system in the country. Consequently, on matters of democracy, the British and French share a common bad legacy.
In Vietnam, French imperialism is responsible for the rise and spread of communism. Therefore, it suffices to argue that the French did not contribute to the democratization process in Vietnam. In essence, it could be argued that the French denied the Vietnamese people the opportunity to pursue democracy at a time when the world was moving in that direction. Jansen and Osterhammel (2017) define decolonization as the “simultaneous dissolution of several intercontinental empires and the creation of nation-states…” (1). However, in the French context in Vietnam, the decolonization process was a failure because instead of forming a nation-state, the country was plunged into a thirty-year civil war.
British imperialism has been receiving blanket condemnation from various quarters, especially from a nationalistic perspective. However, approaching this issue from such a simplistic point of view derails the efforts to understand and contextualize imperialism. In Hong Kong, the British laid down an economic system that has continued to support the country’s sustained growth as shown in this paper.
However, the French legacy in Vietnam, in terms of economic development is the exact opposite of the British in Hong Kong. The French’s civil law deprived locals the opportunity to advance their economic interests while at the same time keeping international investors away. Nevertheless, the British and French legacies are similar on matters to do with democracy in their former colonies, specifically in Hong Kong and Vietnam. Currently, civil unrest is being witnessed in Hong Kong as a direct result of the British unwillingness to initiate the democratization process in the country when it was still in power. In conclusion, it suffices to argue that empires left mixed legacies on their colonies when imperialism ended in the twentieth century.
Boyajian, Annie, and Sarah Cook. 2019. “Democratic Crisis in Hong Kong: Recommendations for Policymakers.” Freedom House. Web.
Chan, Ming. 1997. “The Legacy of the British Administration of Hong Kong: A View from Hong Kong.” The China Quarterly 51 (1), 567-582.
Cumings, Bruce. 2002. Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American–East Asian Relations at the End of the Century. Durham: Duke University Press.
Goodwin, Jeff. 2001. No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Jansen, Jan, and Jurgen Osterhammel. 2017. Decolonization: A Short History. Translated by Jeremiah Riemer. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Kwon, Roy. 2011. “How the Legacy of French Colonization has Shaped Divergent Levels of Economic Development in East Asia: A Time-Series Cross-National Analysis.” The Sociological Quarterly 52 (1): 56-82.
McDougall, James. 2011. “The British and French Empires in the Arab World: Some Problems of Colonial State-formation and its Legacy.” In Histories of Empire and After, edited by Sally Cummings, 44-65. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press.
Ziltener, Patrick, Daniel Kunzler, and Andre Walter. 2017. Measuring the Impacts of Colonialism: A New Data Set for the Countries of Africa and Asia. Journal of World-Systems Research 23 (1): 156-190.