As the final post for this module, and partly (well, mostly) due to a lack of time to scour through journals for interesting articles, I decide to situate it within the present, letting my mind roam free in search for anything remotely relevant to transnationalism in my life, resulting in a miscellaneous bag of fragmented thoughts.

Last week, the story of the Panama Papers broke out, as well over 10,000 documents from the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonsaka were leaked. The Guardian calls it “history’s biggest data leak”, and my hometown, Hong Kong, occupied a rather prominent place in the whole unfolding story. Hong Kong has the highest number of intermediaries – banks, accountants, law firms – which serve the clients of this Panama-based firm. The world’s richest people are almost all implicated, many of whom set up offshore companies with the help of nominees so that their names don’t even have to appear. These companies exploit the loopholes in the international system to their own benefits, as being registered in tax havens helps the real owners to save millions worth of taxes. Journalists are still ploughing through the mountain of files, but well-recognised names are already spilling out.

This treasure trove of scandalous materials for a hungry world exposes in concrete details a suspicion that has to have floated at the back of many people’s minds. Rich people hide their wealth, Mossack Fonsaka shows exactly how, and the extent to which they do it. For a student in transnational history too, this case exemplifies the interconnectivity of the modern world, how institutions and companies collaborate to form an intricate web of linkages to serve the interests of the world’s ultra-rich and powerful. Our discussions previously in class about how transnationalism doesn’t always have to be ‘progressive’ or ‘rosy’ couldn’t have found a better example. Since the story broke, I have been discussing with my family whether this should shake our faith in Hong Kong as an international financial centre, forcing us to ask ourselves the question ‘to what end?’ if we know it only facilitates a minority bent on duping the system. Nonetheless, Hong Kong has been an important node in the international system since the West started trading in the East, as this former British colony carved out a tiny space in the southeast corner of the world’s most populous country that abides by a set of rules set down by the West. It is the place where secret societies traded gunpowder and dynamites to be smuggled into the mainland, but it is also a place that showcased the superiority of the Western governance and the capitalist system, acting as both an inspiration and a sanctuary for revolutionaries.

Before I get too excited about Hong Kong, I should move on to the other fragment that comes from a family friend who is a surgeon based in Hong Kong, but often travels to parts of the world that are in the most dire need for medical assistance. I was sent a message which he wrote when he was still in Aden, Yemen, over two weeks ago. This has allowed me a glimpse into the global exchanges promoted by organisations such as ICRC and MSF, as surgeons from around the world use their expertise to help places that have a shortage of personnel and train local surgeons. Dr Au mentions that he would be replaced in a week’s time from his time of writing by a Japanese lady surgeon, who had replaced him twice before in Hangu, Pakistan. They had also met in Gaza in 2014 during the war. He also wrote about mentoring a local lady surgeon, Dr  Samar, who lacked the chance to practice on her own because for most part she had to assist senior male surgeons. So he decided to give her more opportunities to operate, and also assisted her to ‘repair a torn radial artery’, which was her first time. I have much admiration for the work that he does, as he has to risk his own personal safety, has a lot of patience and does a world of good.

I certainly think that our outlook on the world is inevitably influenced by all that is happening around us. Whereas a dominant view in history has focused on tensions or outright conflicts, transnationalism is more invested in discovering how people make connections and form networks, and how these in turn shape the world as we know it. In a way, I feel more empowered by this perspective on history, and I think others will too, because it is centered around individuals, showing us the microcosm of history and the agency of people, veering away from a mypoic fascination with the actions and decisions of powerful figures.

Panama Papers and a Hong Kong Surgeon in Aden

2 thoughts on “Panama Papers and a Hong Kong Surgeon in Aden

  • April 21, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    I found this blog post fascinating! I had not even considered how something as immediately relevant as the leak of the Panama Papers could highlight transnational connections until you brought it up here. And you are absolutely right – globalisation is a transnational force that does not always act for the better. In this case it is the global top one per cent benefitting from the transnational networks we have discussed so often in class. For me, this is a perfect example to highlight the dangers of an ever-globalising world. Whilst certain elements of globalisation and transnationalism are obviously for the better, it is useful to have examples that highlight the opposite. This is something I think several of our projects did a really good job of, the immediate examples that spring to my mind being the cases of the International Red Cross Committee and the Roma in 1950s France.
    My favourite part of this post, however, is your assertion that transnational history is about networks of people and the connections they make. I know this is something many of us have come to conclude, however it is something I personally feel very strongly about. Like you say, traditional historiography tends to focus on the big ruptures and events in history, and whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, I do find myself becoming frustrated when I think agency is being overlooked. In a transnational approach, I think this is really difficult to achieve, as people and their networks are at its heart. Like you, I also find this is a much more empowering approach to history than more traditional narratives that favour structures over individuals. I think transnational history may finally be achieving the ‘history from below’ perspective that other approaches (of which Marxism is probably the best example of) have previously aimed for, precisely due to this.

    • April 22, 2016 at 10:15 am

      This is an interesting post and dovetails nicely with some of my own thoughts.

      I don’t think it is accurate or helpful to view the world as more connected than ever, the elites have always been connected across national boundaries and have often used the national ‘boxes,’ that others adhere to, to their own advantage. The difference now is that for the last two centuries (roughly) ordinary people have been experiencing life beyond their local communities and building their own connections and networks at multiple levels of society.

      So it is not that society is more connected now than any other time period it is that these connections are now occurring at so many different levels of society that boundaries are beginning to be questioned and reassessed. However, this obviously does not suit those that have been using these boundaries to their own advantage so as some are chipping away at them others are strengthening them and attempting to put people back into their national boxes.

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