Many diplomats are passionate about history, which comes as no surprise as their basic training requires an in-depth knowledge of the history of international relations and as students, many had weighty tomes on diplomatic history by Pierre Renouvin or Jean-Baptiste Duroselle for bedside reading.
- Photo d’archive intitulée "Hong Kong vu de ma chambre au club" (vers 1904-1905) | Photo : Archives du MAEDI
A clear understanding of past events
One of a diplomat’s missions is to gain an understanding of the country to which they have been posted, in all of its aspects, economic, political, social, cultural, religious, etc. To achieve this objective, knowledge of the country’s history is required, which will allow the diplomat to increase their understanding of their future environment. Preparing for a foreign posting thus involves reading books, newspaper articles, notes or reports describing all the issues of the country where they will be living for several years. Studying the development of relations over the decades and centuries between France and the host country is also essential to success.
It was for this reason that in 2005, when the Ministry confirmed that I would be sent to Hong Kong, I headed for the mine of information that is the Quai d’Orsay library in a bid to find out everything I could on the place, as well as on diplomatic relations between France and the former British colony.
While there were many books on Hong Kong, particularly in English, I was unable to find information on the history of diplomatic relations between Hong Kong and France. In that sense, there was a striking difference between Hong Kong and the other Chinese cities where France and French diplomats were (and still are) present.
Hong Kong does not seem to have been of interest to historians, researchers or academics, who wrote thousands of pages on the Lagrené or Montigny missions in the 19th century, on the French concessions of Shanghai and Guangzhou and on the French Consulate in Chengdu, which for a time was run by the father of writer Lucien Bodard (which he explains in his book Monsieur le Consul).
- Vue du port de Hong Kong en 1900 | Photo : Archives du MAEDI
Hong Kong or the disaffection of historians
Hong Kong owes this uniqueness to its status. The Embassies, consulates, concessions or legations set up by France over the centuries in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Fuzhou and Longzhou were all official French representations in the Chinese Empire, in the Republic of China as of 1911, or in the People’s Republic of China as of 1964, the year in which communist China was officially recognized by France. These diplomatic and consular posts thus helped to extend France’s influence in China, particularly in the 19th century, a time when Western powers were intruding into Asia and to this end, they attracted the interest of academics and researchers.
- Le consulat de France à Hong Kong en octobre 1971
- Photo : Archives du MAEDI
But none of that applied to Hong Kong. Since it opened in 1997, the French Consulate in Hong Kong was a Consulate to a colony of the British Crown, and then it became a consulate in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong, which has specific status in China. This unusual status as an observation post for China or the British, and not as post affirming France’s presence in China, seems to have discouraged historians.
Apprehensively, I thus buried myself in the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as those of the Marine, Defence, Foreign Missions in Paris and the government of Hong Kong, not forgetting private archives. I will soon try to outline what I have learnt and in another ‘little diplomatic story’, I will show how the richness and variety of the diplomatic profession has been able to span the centuries.