- Chinese Business Groups in Hong Kong and Political Change in South China, 1900-1925
This tautly written, ambitious monograph addresses several significant themes in modern Chinese history. Its author (an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University) grapples with, at one and the same time, the relationship between business interests and politics in the late Qing and Republican periods, political intrigues linking Hong Kong and Guangdong that involved two rival Cantonese factions as well as the Hong Kong colonial government, and the grander interplay between imperialism and pre-Leninist Chinese nationalism. Po-yin Chung's handling of the first and second of these issues, although raising a number of analytical problems, is more confident than her treatment of the third. Her study nonetheless repays careful reading, as what she has to say about politics "as a form of business investment" in early twentieth-century South China amplifies works such as John Fitzgerald's brilliant analytical tour de force, Awakened China: Politics, Culture, and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).
Chung begins her account in provocative style by emphasizing the importance of China's first Company Law of 1904. Its enactment allegedly marked a watershed, "the guarantee of property rights not by patronage but by law" on the part of the Qing central authorities. Western governments had long before fostered an institutional separation between politics and business by recognizing the legal autonomy of business interests, thus delinking business and political "patronage." Chinese regimes over the 1911-1928 period were unfortunately too fragmented and weak to follow through on this legal precedent, thus leaving Chinese businessmen with two (not mutually exclusive) options. In treaty ports or colonial territories such as Hong Kong they could rely upon foreign protection, while operating in China itself still involved working patronage networks. In specific [End Page 413] terms, this meant that Chung's key protagonists—the Siyi and Baolan cliques of Hong Kong-based businessmen—competed to fund regional governments in Guangdong that were linked to rival Canton and Peking regimes with national ambitions. Although incurring obvious political and financial risks, the Cantonese habit of "investing in politics" promised high dividends in Guangdong, including control of public properties, the province's central bank, and its fiscal administration. When material incentives were insufficient, regional patriotism, culminating in the "Canton for the Cantonese" campaign of 1917 to 1923, spurred these South China merchants to action. Chung maintains that, in contrast to other British colonial subjects, Hong Kong Chinese businessmen displayed a national orientation to extra-colonial Chinese politics rather than to the Crown Colony's parochial affairs.
As these arguments recur from time to time in the unfolding of Chung's historical narrative, they require some comment here. It is not at all clear that the 1904 Company Law did in fact constitute a true milestone in state-business relations in twentieth-century China. William Kirby argued in a groundbreaking article published four years ago that modern Chinese governments sought to use this and subsequent laws both to promote and to control modern enterprises; most private enterprises in fact sought to avoid official registration as corporations under Chinese law.1 Second, without getting bogged down in the debate over "civil society" that Chung alludes to, her analysis overstates the extent to which business and politics were ever really divorced in the West itself, let alone China. More importantly, the dichotomizing of patronage versus law ignores both a nascent modern legal culture in early twentieth-century China and a vigorous vernacular tradition of customary law that continued to inform business transactions.2 Finally, while a strong case is made that certain Hong Kong Chinese business groups did focus on Chinese national affairs—possibly to the detriment of Hong Kong's own political maturation—comparisons with other British colonies could be made more explicit. Singapore certainly suggests itself, yet Singapore's Chinese business elites frequently displayed a fervent concern with China's national...