Hong Kong: How Could Such a Thriving City Collapse into Chaos? (Part I)
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
Part 1: Hong Kong’s Rise under British Rule This series of articles includes two parts and intends to unravel the causes of Hong Kong’s demise under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party. The first article will address Hong Kong’s history under British rule from 1842 to 1997. To understand the city’s collapse, it is essential to study its rise, although it did not always benefit the population. The second article will address the existing Chinese influence in Hong Kong since 1997. The article does not intend to antagonize the Chinese people, limiting the analysis to the Chinese Communist Party’s actions outside of mainland China. Introduction In 2019, Hong Kong was the most visited city in the world, with 29 million visitors. The city is a worldwide cultural epicenter, despite its 7.5 million inhabitants. Its cuisine, skyscrapers, landscapes, values, and history make Hong Kong a city like no other. The list could be much longer, but it would not be enough to do justice to this marvelous city. Oddly, the same year, it has been an arena for protests, violence, and repression. This situation has led to the demise of what Hong Kong was all about: a small island of freedom and democracy, surrounded by an authoritarian regime eager to sway it. Hong Kong’s ceding as a British colony In the early 19th century, opium smuggling reached an all-time high and became a political issue in China. Thus, in 1838, Emperor Daoguang ordered the destruction of the opium stock, mainly owned by British traffickers. The British retaliation was quite brutal. A year after the incident, the government sent a war fleet as negotiations failed. The first opium war broke out. Unable to withstand the technological superiority of the British navy, China ceded Hong Kong in the 1841 Convention of Chuenpi. The territory was a sparsely inhabited island off the Chinese southeast coast. The war ended in 1842, with the treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong had already become a key element of the British trade when the second opium war started in 1856. The Qing Dynasty capitulated four years later, which led to the ceding of the Kowloon Peninsula as part of Hong Kong.
Naval battle during the first opium war
Despite what one might assume, Hong Kong under British rule was not a land of peace and freedom for the population, at least in the beginning. During the 19th century, the legislative council that “advised” the governor (appointed from London) ruled the British colony. Hongkongers were treated as inferior beings by colonists, and the city’s development benefitted almost exclusively the British. Besides, any attempt of uprising by the population backfired violently. The situation of Hong Kong changed after the Second World War and the 4-year Japanese occupation, from 1941 to 1945. Afterward, the British took back control of the colony. Meanwhile, the Chinese revolution broke out. From this point forward, the population of Hong Kong increased drastically, as many fled the Chinese revolution and, later, communist China. The British tried to bring a democratic and representative government to Hong Kong. Yet, pressure from Beijing hindered the process, and the colony had to wait until 1991 to have a fitting yet flawed representative democracy. All along, Hongkongers were pushing for democracy, even under British rule, depicting how freedom is a deeply rooted value in Hong Kong’s society.
Hong Kong’s development as a British colony
Economically, becoming a British colony was a game-changer for Hong Kong. Liberalism, brought by the UK, has enabled its development. The city became the first of the Four Asian Tiger economies to industrialize during the 1950s. At the time, Hong Kong was a textile and garment exporter. Because of the city’s economic and demographic growth, authorities decided to build infrastructures and create more efficient public services. Thus, they erected the port on the Kowloon Peninsula off the South China Sea during the 1970s. Today, the port of Hong Kong is the 7th major port in the world. Besides, there was a need for a smoother traffic flow. Officials worked on a Metro project in the early 1970s. Ten years later, in February 1980, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) opened. In 2021, the metro carried 3.5 million passengers daily. Following Hong Kong’s development, labor property costs increased, which hurt its competitiveness. The city then transitioned to a service-based economy and became a global financial center and shipping hub.
The port of Hong Kong
Handover of Hong Kong
Before the 1980s, there were essentially no peaceful means by which Hong Kong could be handed over to China, as the United Kingdom could not bargain with Mao Zedong’s regime. Constant tensions between the two powers prevented such talks from happening. For instance, in 1962, Hong Kong riots, organized by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sympathizers, resulted in the death of five British Hong Kong police officers by the hand of Chinese soldiers. However, after Mao died in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China, initiated four modernizations, making the country more friendly to the UK, and facilitating negotiations. Yet, these advances did not temper the ambition of the regime: Deng Xiaoping wanted Hong Kong to be Chinese. In 1982, he and Margaret Thatcher met to discuss the future of the colony. During these talks, Xiaoping told the Iron Lady that China could simply invade Hong Kong. It was later revealed the Chinese Communist Party had prepared for such an eventuality. After further negotiations, China and the UK agreed with the handover of Hong Kong and signed, in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. This treaty sealed the fate of Hong Kong: China would have, under certain conditions, control over the city after July 1, 1997.
Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in Beijing on September 24, 1982(STR/AFP/Getty Images)
The idea behind the Sino-British Joint declaration was clear: peacefully handing over control of Hong Kong. Besides, for the sake of all parties, it was agreed that Hong Kong would conserve high autonomy. Thus, the former colony became a special administrative region. Therefore, after the handover, the economic, social, governing, and legal systems stayed out of China’s sphere of influence. This is the one country two systems principle: the coexistence between mainland “communist” China, and “capitalist” Hong Kong. The one country two systems concept is enshrined in the Basic Law, the constitutional document of Hong Kong. The Basic Law protects fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Hong Kong Basic Law
Despite having served its purpose for about 22 years, the document is deeply flawed: it substantially allows China’s influence on Hong Kong politics. For instance, the head of the government, the Chief Executive, is elected by a 1200-member Election Committee but legally appointed by the People’s Republic of China. Since 1997, all Hong Kong chief executives have been pro-Beijing. As for the justice system, under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s courts are responsible – “within the limits of their autonomy” - for determining whether the government’s actions are legal. But the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) – China’s rubber-stamp parliament - holds the ultimate “power of interpretation” of the law. However, historically, Hong Kong’s justice system has been very efficient in preserving people’s freedoms and respecting their rights. In fact, the major flaw of the basic law is its expiration date. In 2047, the constitutional document will no longer be effective. The legal and political systems of Hong Kong will only be distinct from that of mainland China until 2047. Afterward, the city will be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party. This 50-year transition was intended to be smooth. In practice, only 24 years after the handover, the Basic Law fails to protect Hongkongers’ freedoms and the autonomy of the city.
Hong Kong handover ceremony
Between June 30th and July 1st, 1997, the handover ceremony was held in Hong Kong Island. British representatives attended the ceremony: among them were Prince Charles (representing Queen Elizabeth II), Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, and Chris Patten, governor of Hong Kong. As for the Chinese representatives, there were, among others, Jiang Zemin, (General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of China) along with Tung Chee-hwa, Chief Executive of Hong Kong. At 00:00 HKT, on July 1st, 1997, the flag of the People’s Republic of China and the new Hong Kong regional flag were simultaneously raised to the Chinese national anthem “March of the Volunteers”. This officially sealed the handover of Hong Kong. The territory finally had its own official flag, that would eventually represent freedom and prosperity. The flag is comprised of the bauhinia flower (in white), a traditional emblem of Hong Kong, on a red background. On each petal, there are five-pointed red stars. Despite having Chinese and communist references, this flag reflects much more traditional symbolism than the previous one.
British rule has forged Hong Kong’s current identity. Despite the violent repression of protests and the city’s development at Hongkongers expense, becoming a colony allowed Hong Kong to shine. However, the ceding of the city to the UK symbolizes a century of humiliation for China. It is thus understandable that Beijing tried to restore its dignity by claiming Hong Kong. With the handover and its autonomous status, Hong Kong finally was where it belonged: in China, but not quite like China.
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