With deterioration of Sino-British relations during the first Opium War, Hong Kong is ceded to Britain in perpetuity in 1842. It is proclaimed a colony and ruled by the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LEGCO). By the end of second Opium War, Kowloon is leased to Britain, also in perpetuity. Businesses flourish. In 1898 Britain obtains from China a 99-year lease for the New Territories.
The last dynasty falls in China in 1911 and people in Hong Kong take to the streets, attacking offices of the monarchist newspaper and the Bank of China. A new Supreme Court opens, as does Hong Kong University and the Kowloon-Canton Railway. During British occupation Hong Kong will become the largest entrepot between China and the rest of the world.
Emboldened by anti-imperialist demonstrations in China, Hong Kong workers launch a series of strikes and demonstrations that nearly paralyze the colony. After almost 30 percent of workers flee north to Guangzhou, the British Foreign Office says it will modify some unequal treaties. Several British concessions are handed back to China after huge local protests.
When Ho Chi Minh comes to Hong Kong to organize a secret Indo-Chinese Communist Party, he is arrested and extradited. Japan invades Northern China in 1931, and anti-Japanese riots break out in Hong Kong.
Chinese authorities in Guangzhou send agitators to Kowloon to resist Hong Kong's resettlements there. The dispute drags on for five years. Chinese and Hong Kong leaders meet to discuss the development of southern China and make plans for a rail line linking major Hong Kong and Chinese cities.
When Japan blockades Chinese ports, Hong Kong becomes a crucial channel for arms supplies to China. A completed railway and bridge over the Shenzhen River facilitate traffic between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Japan attacks Hong Kong on December 8, 1941. Britain surrenders to Japan in Hong Kong on December 25. Four years of painful occupation follow.
Britain and China begin talks on Hong Kong's sovereignty, but they fizzle when China's civil war leads to a communist victory. Hundreds of Shanghai businesses transfer operations to Hong Kong. The government reinforces Hong Kong garrisons and adopts a tough anticommunist stance. Identity cards are issued to residents over age 12, and police search powers extended.
Britain recognizes the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1950. Relations are uneasy as hundreds of thousands of Chinese refugees flood into Hong Kong. When the United Nations imposes a trade embargo on China, it effectively ends Hong Kong's entrepot status. Britain drops reform plans for Hong Kong, calling the timing "inopportune."
When a plane carrying Chinese and North Vietnamese officials explodes midair in 1955, China blames Hong Kong rebels and demands justice. Riots break out when Nationalist flags are defaced in Kowloon in 1956. With China's markets virtually closed, Hong Kong focuses on industrialization and soon becomes a significant Asian industrial center.
Booming as a freewheeling industrial and financial center, Hong Kong is a rest stop for U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam and a major U.S. listening post for Asia. But tensions with China remain high and worsen when left-wing radicals place bombs in crowded areas and stage anti-British protests. There is a run on Chinese banks in Hong Kong. Riots break out on Kowloon after a ferry rate increase.
China opens to the West, and tensions with Hong Kong relax. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping invites Governor MacLehose to visit and discuss the expiration of the New Territories lease. Hong Kong is referred to as "a Chinese territory under British administration." Property values are astronomically high, and some businesses begin to move north into China.
Hong Kong's population reaches 5.2 million; the "touch base" policy that had been in practice is abolished to halt the influx of immigrants from China. Hong Kong British passport holders are downgraded to "British Dependent Territory Citizens." When China opens Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Guangdong, heavy Hong Kong investment begins.
Margaret Thatcher begins negotiations with Deng Xiaoping on the future of Hong Kong. By 1984 they complete the first draft of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Future of Hong Kong. They agree that Hong Kong will become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China in 1997, with its own laws, freedoms, and way of life continuing until at least 2047.
In Beijing a committee is formed to draft the "Basic Law" that will govern Hong Kong after hand-over, and a Sino-Soviet Joint Liaison Group is set up in Hong Kong to facilitate the transfer of government. In 1989 Governor Wilson announces a controversial plan to build a new airport by early 1997, slated to be one of the world's largest infrastructure projects.
Basic Law is formally promulgated. China announces that it must be consulted on all decisions involving Hong Kong before 1997, especially those regarding the airport project. A new Hong Kong Bill of Rights overrides all other laws, but the PRC claims the right of review and repeal in 1997.
Negotiations on the future of Hong Kong continue. The thorniest issues to be resolved are the pace of democratization and the new airport under construction. Beijing is alarmed to learn of likely debt in the airport project, and objects to Governor Patten's proposals for democratic reforms.
Fears about what will happen in Hong Kong after the hand-over grow. China threatens to treat non-Chinese residents differently, eroding international business confidence.
In June, thousands gather in memory of Tiananmen Square victims and demand that their freedoms remain untouched. In July Hong Kong becomes an SAR of China. Business ties with China strengthen when tycoon Tung Chee-hwa becomes the first chief executive. China soon moves to repeal 16 laws, including several from the Bill of Rights. Teaching of Mandarin is encouraged alongside Cantonese and English.
In a prominent "right of abode" case, the government tries using a mainland mechanism to overturn a decision of Hong Kong's courts, unsettling many. Yet despite fears, Hong Kong's legal system and civil service remain independent.
Hong Kong is a major financial and commercial center. China's World Trade Organization membership and massive industrial investment in Guangdong boost trade, but other revenue is down. The "one country, two systems" political system takes hold, but the mood is less buoyant, competition from other cities fierce. The economy falters with the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.
back to top