At exactly midnight (Hong Kong time) on July 1st 1997, the Last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten sent the following telegram:
“I have relinquished the administration of this government. God Save The Queen. Patten.”
The succinct communication was the last official act of a government that had existed in some form or other for 155 years and with it Great Britain’s “tenancy” of Hong Kong ended and it became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China or more correctly The People’s Republic of China. The terms of the SAR were negotiated in the years leading up to 1997 and it’s an arrangement that will last for 50 years at which point it will be subject to review. The return to Chinese rule did not however spark the mass exodus some predicted either of people or money and Hong Kong today is a vibrant multi cultural city-state.
You don’t have to travel far in the city to find relics of the former tenant – whether they are architectural or some classic road names -I can’t imagine Carnarvon Road is named after a Chinese location and Cameron Road is surely ahead of its time? But the interesting impact is on the culture which appears at least on the surface to be a blend of both its significant influences.
I have been very fortunate over the past few years to make several visits to Hong Kong. They have been mostly business (with a little pleasure snuck in) and I have worked with people from our business who have been of either British, Hong Kong-Chinese or Mainland Chinese origin and got to see firsthand some of the differences that manifest themselves as Asia accelerates its position in the global economy and the multi nationals strive to work effectively in the region.
In his 1976 book “Beyond Culture”, the anthropologist Edward T. Hall proposed his concept of cultural context defining the differences between high context and low context cultures. He was an American who’s work had started with native Americans and through working with the Foreign Service had broadened globally and I think I’m right in saying he defined the extremities of communication cultures using Japan and the US as respectively the poles of high context and low context cultures.
Information regarding his definitions is readily available but in summary:
- Relationships build slowly
- Trust depends on connections
- Identity rooted in the Collective
- Hierarchical structures
- Space is communal
- Time is polychronic
- Time is a process
- Change is slow
- Accuracy is valued
- Relationships build up quickly
- Trust depends on one’s merit
- Identity rooted in the individual
- Egalitarian structures
- Space is territorial and private
- Time is monochronic
- Time is a commodity
- Change is fast
- Speed is valued
Given the poles are Japan and the US it is likely no great surprise that fairly close to both those extremes are China and the UK, with the Chinese culture very high context and the UK far lower.
It was during a discussion of these ideas with a group in Shanghai that one of the Senior Managers in the room asked the question “so where does Hong Kong sit?” Being a good facilitator I inwardly panicked and outwardly threw the question back to the room… discussion ensued. The result of the discussion was in their opinion, that Hong Kong sat somewhere you might define as mid context having elements of both high and low and the discussion went further to how the history of Hong Kong might have influenced this.
In reflecting on this on several occasions with various people since that time the idea of mid context seems to have some resonance for people experienced in the region and the observation had been made by several people that rather than having a diluted culture in the middle that Hong Kong has some distinctly high context elements and some distinctly low context elements and that they could possibly correlate to the role of the family (where culture seems far more traditional) and the role of commerce (where the behaviour observed by others has been likened far more to Western cultures).
Given the pace of globalisation, the shifts in economic power, the need for multinational businesses to operate globally and the future of the SAR, it seems that Hong Kong may have some interesting times ahead and with hindsight will the most significant landlord’s fixtures not be the buildings or the road names but the divergent culture born of two significant influences?
Where does all this leave us? Given a lack of significant research it leaves us with some interesting ideas from people who live and work in Asia and personally it leaves me with a desire to further explore this fascinating place which given it’s half past gin o’clock and I am sat in a hotel in Kowloon, I will do now!