Posted on 16 July 2010
Dr Clayton says the technological methods used in Hong Kong during the drought of 1963-64, together with the purchase of water from the Chinese Government, will be a pattern that many developing countries will have to follow in the 21st century.
A specialist in the post-1945 economic history of Hong Kong, he is studying the novel practical and political solutions that were used to help the then colony to deal with chronic water shortages caused by a succession of droughts.
Dr Clayton says: “In the event of extreme weather becoming more frequent and the depletion of underground reserves, developing countries will have to make tough decisions about how to invest in new water supply capacity.
“Many will have to copy Hong Kong’s water-supply solutions the 1960s -- to invest in water capture and to trade in water.”
From the 1960s, Hong Kong became reliant on trade in water with the Chinese Peoples’ Government (CPG), a relationship which appeared unaffected by political differences. The territory overcame severe environmental constraints by a mix of technological innovation, good organisation and by this ‘friendly diplomacy’.
The direct financial gains reaped by China from this trade were minimal. Dr Clayton suggests that either Chinese negotiators were inept, or, as seems more likely, they had more complex motivations for collaborating with Hong Kong.
He claims there were clear political advantages for CPG. Firstly the CPG enjoyed a propaganda victory by assisting their ‘compatriots’ in Hong Kong to alleviate drought. More importantly, China strengthened its capacity to damage the Hong Kong economy and to threaten the social order by making the colony, which was already importing food and fuel from China, even more reliant on key commodities from the mainland. Long term, however, China’s ‘friendly diplomacy’ supported Hong Kong’s economic development, which was of great benefit to a reformist China, post-1978.
During the 1960s (the critical decade for collective decision-making), the Hong Kong government was unconcerned by the political gains China would reap from trade in water with Hong Kong, but also wanted to achieve water self-sufficiency for the colony. This colonial water policy was made during the crisis of 1963-64, a severe drought that risked economic ruination and social unrest.
Dr Clayton is now carrying out further research, in collaboration with fellow historians in Hong Kong, in the archives of the CPG to explore further the political and economic gains for China.
Dr David Clayton is a Senior Lecturer in History and a Director of the Centre for Historical Economics and Related Research at York.
Study in the Department of History.