Hong Kong and the Huguenots
Posted in History Today Feed
July 1, 2022

Hong Kong and the Huguenots

Ben Jones
Ben Jones

As the long shadow of China’s National Security Law fell over Hong Kong in June 2020 the ‘one country, two systems’ appeared to be dead in the water. First formulated by Deng Xiaoping in his negotiations with Margaret Thatcher’s government in the lead up to the December 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, this pragmatic principle underpinned the Hong Kong Basic Law. It guaranteed that the former British colony would be allowed to enjoy the exercise of its common law legal system and legislative arrangements, human rights and democratic expression as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) for 50 years after the formal handover of the territory on 1 July 1997. 

The imposition of the National Security Law represented a watershed for China’s place in the world. It put an end to Hong Kong’s special trade and tariff status with the US, undermined the future of 1,300 US firms with operations and offices in Hong Kong and raised fears for many international businesses. For a variety of reasons both the US and Europe are now ‘re-shoring’ their manufacturing or moving it to places like Vietnam and Indonesia, at the same time as the US Federal Reserve is buying back Chinese-owned Treasury bonds. And, while China may have achieved historically unparalleled levels of economic growth after 1979, it is just about to enter a period of historically unparalleled population decline. China’s ‘one child’ policy ensured that it would eventually face an economic train wreck. The country has recently moved into a stage where the working age population is declining and the ageing population is rapidly increasing. Chinese women are bearing an average of 1.3 children (Beijing believes it needs that to be at least 1.8 to maintain acceptable levels of growth), on a par with countries with significant falling populations, like Japan or Italy, which have a much higher level of development. China’s official figures suggest one third of the population will be elderly and in need of support by 2050. 



How does Hong Kong fit into this picture? One of the island-city’s major assets is its educated, innovative and financially savvy population. Britain, as the former colonial power, has granted 350,000 Hong Kongers, who were born before the 1997 handover, British National Overseas (BNO) passports. These give holders the rights to automatic six-month visitor visas. An estimated three million more Hong Kong citizens and their dependents, or just under half Hong Kong’s current 7.5 million people, could apply for such passports. The UK government has announced that these will carry substantially enlarged rights, namely leave to remain and work in the UK for up to five years with the right to apply for citizenship at the end of that period (after a further 12 month settled status period), meaning that there is now a six-year pathway to full UK citizenship. 

This changes the picture for BNO passport holders in Hong Kong. In the first two months of the scheme the UK Home Office received 34,200 BNO visa applications, of which 7,200 were granted. It is estimated that by 2025 between 300,000 and a million Hong Kongers will move to the UK, bringing with them $74 billion in capital assets. An exodus has already begun. In February 2022 71,000 foreigners are reported to have left Hong Kong, presumably motivated not only by the breakdown of the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement, but also by the its strict Covid policies. 



Half a century ago Britain’s decision to admit 27,000 Ugandan Asians through its Uganda Resettlement Board, following President Idi Amin’s 1972 expulsion of three quarters of the 80,000-strong Ugandan Asian community, also brought the UK substantial benefits. Refugees from that period and their children have gone on to make their mark on British public life. One thinks here of the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the journalist-author, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the current Chair of Prudential Plc, Baroness Vadera and – although not of Asian descent but still a political refugee – the former Archbishop of York John Sentamu. 

Looking still further back there is an even more interesting historical precedent that holds a mirror to current events in Hong Kong. In the late 17th century a bold and pragmatic experiment, equivalent to Deng Xiaoping’s ‘one country, two systems’, was brought to an end by an absolutist state just across the English Channel. This event, which took place in October 1685, was the Revocation of the 1598 Edict of Nantes. The Edict had guaranteed for nearly a century the political rights and religious liberties of the 800,000 French Calvinists (roughly five per cent of France’s population), known as Huguenots. It had been initiated by one of France’s greatest monarchs, Henry IV of Navarre, a Protestant who had converted to Catholicism in order to unify France.


‘Whose realm, his religion’

King Henry’s ‘one country, two systems’ initiative with regard to France’s Protestant and Catholic communities was groundbreaking. Since the Peace of Augsburg in 1555 the rulers of the German states had agreed to accept the principle ‘cuius regio, eius religio’ (‘whose realm, his religion’). This meant that the inhabitants of a given state were required to follow the religion of the ruler of that state, which thus became the state religion. Those who could not conform to their prince’s religion were allowed to leave with their belongings and seek refuge in a state more congenial to their religious beliefs. 

Henry’s Edict of Nantes effectively ended the Wars of Religion by guaranteeing the physical protection of French Protestants via the designation of military strongholds (places de sûreté Protestantes) secured by Protestant garrisons –Montauban, Nîmes, La Rochelle and Saumur – in addition to some 150 emergency forts (place de refuge), sometimes just fortified manor houses, maintained at the Huguenots’ own expense. The Edict also ensured that, when French Protestants travelled abroad, they would be guaranteed protection from the Inquisition, a guarantee which Pope Clement VIII strongly protested: ‘This crucifies me!’ were his supposed words.

In the context of late 16th- and early 17th-century Europe, these were bold measures indeed and they met with fierce resistance from hard line Catholics. Henry IV survived 14 attempts on his life before eventually succumbing to an assassin’s dagger in 1610. After his death, the late king was celebrated in French popular literature in the song ‘Vive le Roi Henri’ (later the anthem for the French monarchy) and in Voltaire’s Henriade (1723), an epic poem written to honour his life by one of the greatest Enlightenment philosophers of the age. Henry was also one of only two French monarchs (the other was Louis IX, the saintly 13th-century ruler) whose body was treated with respect when the French Revolutionaries desecrated the tombs of the French kings in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in northern Paris in 1793. 

When the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV, abrogated Henry IV’s Edict in the name of religious uniformity in 1685, he resorted to military force – the so-called dragonnades, or forced billeting of cavalrymen (dragoons) on Huguenot households – to pressure the Protestant communities into either converting to Catholicism or going into exile: a model we see echoed today in Xinjiang, where local households are forced to host Communist party cadres. 


Brain drain

An estimated 200,000 migrants – about a quarter of the pre-1685 Huguenot population of France – were forced into exile. Some 60,000 of these ended up in Great Britain (50,000 in England, 10,000 in Ireland), where their skills in silk-weaving (the origin of the Spitalfields silk industry in London), banking, commerce, textile manufacture, the book trade, the arts, teaching, military service and the stage were in high demand. A further 60,000 settled in the Netherlands, where their talents were similarly appreciated. Indeed, 400 French Huguenot families with knowledge of viticulture were sent by the Dutch East India Company to South Africa to develop the local wine industry. The Indonesian freedom fighter and holy war leader Prince Diponegoro would later become a direct beneficiary of this expertise, when fine Cape wines, like his favourite dessert wine from the Constantia vineyard in the Western Cape, began to be exported to Java in the late 18th century.

Within 50 years of their arrival the Huguenots had become almost totally assimilated into the British population and their presence was actively supported after the landing of the Protestant Dutch king, William of Orange, in England in 1688 and during the succession of wars and ideological conflict with Catholic France that followed. 


Britain’s gain

France’s loss was Britain’s gain. The arrival of highly skilled migrants who contributed directly to the building of Britain’s industrial and commercial economy in the 18th century helped the island nation to become, for a period, the world’s leading global trading power. 

Of course, early 21st-century Hong Kong is not like 17th-century France and Hong Kongers are different from the Huguenots. But there are intriguing parallels that might help us to understand today’s situation.


Peter Carey is Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Oxford and adjunct professor in Humanities at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta. Norman Ricklefs is an adjunct fellow at Macquarie University.

Katie Holyoak July 1, 2022 at 02:05PM

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