The History of Hong Kong is a story of the power and influence of the British Empire. The early 19th century saw the British Empire expand further around the globe due to its global naval hegemony. This saw the British trade network expand around the globe facilitating the transfer of luxury goods back to England so cheaply even the lower classes could afford them. Three key luxuries were controlled almost totally by the Qing Empire on China: porcelain, silk, and tea. Britain imported massive amounts of these products while China imported negligible amounts of British goods. This imbalance of trade caused great concern in the British government offices in London.
For years the British searched for a solution to this problem. The British believed the Qing government by allowing trade only through the port of Guangzhou (Canton at the time) and forced foreign traders to sell their goods to a cartel of Chinese trading groups for domestic consumption artificially restricted trade and prevented British goods from being bought. British traders also discovered a commodity that the Chinese were eager to buy, opium. Smuggled by European traders into China, opium was a highly addictive drug that quickly spread throughout southern China causing a great many social problems. The British government began encouraging the production of opium and its smuggling to offset the trade balance with China. Chinese officials in 1838 alarmed at the rapid increase of drug addiction sent Imperial Officials to Guangdong to enforce the Imperial ban on opium. He confiscated the European traders inventory of Opium and destroyed it (Welsh 13-16).
This action caused both anxiety and glee in London. Without opium Britain would continue to lose money trading with China. But the destruction of British merchant stocks without ‘fair trial’ or compensation, the proclamation any merchants selling Opium in future would be executed gave the British government cause for war with China. This is the leadup to the start of the first Opium War, 1839-1842. Qing China being technologically behind the industrializing Britain had little hope of winning the war. British steam powered and ironclad warships destroyed any Chinse force attacking and bombarded several cities forcing them to surrender. The Qing government realizing they could do nothing to stop the British attacking their entire coast quickly asked for peace terms. The British imposed harsh terms, a punitive indemnity for the destruction of the opium, war reparations, extraterritorially guarantees for British citizens, repealing the ban of opium, opening of five more ports to foreign trade, and the secession of the island of Hong Kong to the British (Welsh 16-21).
Hong Kong was chosen by the British because of its geographical location, geology, and sparce population. Hong Kong is an island at the end of the Kowloon Peninsula. Hong Kong is located a short distance from the city of Guangzhou which was the primary port of foreign trade, even after Britain forced more ports to open. The peninsula is a mountainous region that provided good ground for defense if the new colony was attacked. The water around Hong Kong is naturally quite deep allowing for large ocean-going ships to dock at the harbor. The mountainous region also allowed for water reservoirs to be constructed in the valleys to provide water for the colony. The region around Hong Kong is sparsely populated in 1842 with only a few fishing villages on or around Hong Kong (Welsh 17). Robert Fortune an English botanist, on a secret mission to learn how to grow and manufacture tea, described Hong Kong “Hong-Kong Bay is one of the finest which I have ever seen: it is eight or ten miles in length, and irregular in breadth; in some place two, and in other six miles wide, having excellent anchorage all over it, and perfectly free from hidden dangers. It is completely sheltered by the mountains of Hong Kong on the south, and by those of the mainland of China on the opposite shore; land-locked in fact on all sides so that the shipping can ride out the heaviest gales with perfect safety.” (Carroll 13)
British Colonial Officials decided that Hong Kong’s primary role is to act as a commercial city that also provided a base for Britain to extend its diplomatic and military influence throughout the region. This decision would have significant impact on the development of Hong Kong. Unlike Canada, Australia, or South Africa the British government would not encourage British people to settle the new Colony. Instead the British Government in London would designate Hong Kong a Crown Colony. This meant a Governor General would be in charge of the colony and only accountable to London. The small geographical size of the new Colony would mean that the Governor General would not only be in charge of the whole Colony but also act as de facto mayor of the City of Hong Kong itself (Carroll 20-25). Gradually the colony developed port facilities around Victoria Harbor. Few large trading companies moved from the headquarters in Canton to Hong Kong for several decades until the Taiping Rebellion. This rebellion spread across central and southern China spreading chaos and destruction. Worried about their investments the merchants moved from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. This guaranteed their protection with British troops and ships. Alongside the Western trade companies seeking safety were thousands of Chinese refugees (Welsh 22-30).
The development of Hong Kong’s residential areas follows two distinct classes. The wealthy and privileged Western Merchants built houses on the slopes of Mt. Victoria. The poor Chinese workers built their residences near the docks where they worked. These areas were densely populated and generally ungoverned. The Colonial government made an informal agreement with the local tongs (traditional Chinese trading families/companies). (Carroll 18-19) The Colony’s budget was very small. Because it was a free port, there were no tariffs levied on goods entering or leaving the colony. This took away a major source of revenue for the colony who then had to rely on finances coming from Parliament in London to fund the Colonial Government. Because of the small budget government in Hong Kong was correspondingly small. This meant the government had little desire to take on municipal responsibilities, sanitation, water distribution, public safety etc. Instead, they allowed the Chinese to govern themselves under the direction of the tong organizations (Welsh 25-26).
The Second Opium War (1856-1860) further destabilized Qing China and expanded the territory of Hong Kong. The New Territories, the Kowloon peninsula up to the Shenzhen River, was forcibly leased to Great Britain for 99 years. This expansion allowed Hong Kong to cross Victoria Bay and develop Kowloon. The city grew in prosperity and population throughout the 19th century. But as a city focused of business and trade taxation was minimal. Therefore, the city held or sold monopolies on certain goods. The largest and most profitable monopoly being opium, accounting for over 1/3 of the colonies budget in the 1880s. The opium monopoly would continue the Japanese occupation of the city in 1941 during World War 2 (Carroll 19). The Colony would continue to develop and grow through the late 19th and early 20th century. Though its status as the main port for exports for China would be rivaled with the city of Shanghai by 1920. Hong Kong continued to exist as a place of refuge and stability after the Qing empire fell and China was consumed with warlords fighting for control. The government gradually changed during this period as well. The colonial governor began appointing influential businessmen to his advising council for the colony. This included two seats for native Chinese businessmen who would serve as the mouthpieces for the Chinese communities in Hong Kong (Welsh 35-42). This prosperity and stability ended after the Japanese attacked European and American territories on December 7th and 8th 1941.
By December 18th Hong Kong was under total Japanese occupation. This occupation was brutal for the civilians living in Hong Kong for both Chinese and Westerners. The colony was placed under marshal law and enforcement was brutal. The Japanese forcibly deported Chinese residents. The colony’s population fell from 1.6 million in 1941 to 600 thousand in 1945. The people living in the city faced brutal rationing of food, heating/cooking oil, and other necessities. The economy of the city declined sharply as the trade the city relied on stopped. It is estimated that during the years of occupation over 10 thousand civilians were executed by the Imperial Japanese army and numerous other atrocities were committed: organized rape, forced labor, stranding civilians on islands to starve, torture (Welsh 45-52, Carroll 80-92).
The Japanese garrison of Hong Kong surrendered to allied forces on September 16, 1945, and a military administration was formed. Civilian government was reestablished in May 1946 with the arrival of Governor Mark Young. World War 2 shattered the colonial institutions of European countries. Britain was almost bankrupt fighting World War 2 and the ease of which the Japanese conquered European colonies shattered the myth of indominable European military might (Li 28-29, Loh 27-28). Recognizing this change Young proposed a radical plan that would create an elected council that would have some authority over municipal matters and increasing the representation of the Executive council of the Governor. Young hoped that allowing Hong Kongers a greater representation and power in government they would become more loyal to Britain instead of the Chinese Nationalists or Communists. They the dominate forces in mainland China who both advocated for ending the colonization and domestic interference by Europeans (Goodstadt 44-45).
Young had to retire as Governor General in 1947 and was replaced by Alexander Gram. Gram was an arch conservative who undid all reforms Young was able to implement in his short time as governor. Gram would focus his attention on preparing Hong Kong in case of attack. The Chinese Communist Party, lead by Mao Zedong, defeated the Chinese Nationalist party forcing them to flee to Taiwan. Gram and he British government in London was concerned with communist agitation in the colony and ignored all thoughts of democratization. This lack of government support for democratization would continue until the 1980s (Goodstant 50-55).
The economy of Hong Kong rapidly rebounded after the end of World War 2. Though its main source was no longer trade but manufacturing. With the communist victory in the Chinese civil war trade with Mainland China severely dropped. While the communist oppression of factory owners and capitalists forced many to flee, and they moved to Hong Kong. During the 1950s Hong Kong grew as a hub of light manufacturing, focusing on clothes and consumer goods and electronics. Hong Kong continued to be a major source of banking and finance for all of Asia. As colonies across Asia gained independence, they received loans and financing from Hong Kong banks to build their nations. This growing economy served to create a robust middle class in the colony that soon began to produce art and culture that would quickly gain worldwide fame (Li 30-31, Carroll 152-155).
As a British colony Hong Kong had easy access to the technology and films of Britain and America from the earliest days of cinema in the 1910s. The freedom of expression allowed in Hong Kong soon became the hub for Mandarin and Cantonese language films. Hong Kong starting in the 1960s began producing films that would become famous around the world. The films portrayed the lives of Hong Kongers and they also drew great inspiration from the gangs and organized crime that was prevalent throughout Hong Kong for decades. In the 1970s action films from Hong Kong gained popularity in America and Britain. The face of Hong Kong Action was Bruce Lee whose proteges would continue to make film popular around the world, the most famous actor being Jackie Chan. The growth in the 1970s of Hong Kong cinema provided the fuel that the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s. Hong Kong was the third largest producer of movies in the world during this time, behind the US and India (Welsh 460-466).
During the 1960s and onwards the Hong Kong people would often agitate for more representative government. These waves of pro-democracy calls often coincided with recessions in the colony. The colonial government ignored these calls and often implemented harsh crackdown on the protesters. The height of the violence occurred during 1967 when there was a devastating bombing campaign. The police report responding to over 1,100 bombs, found or detonated, during that year and explosions killed 52 police officers and civilians (Carroll 146-155). Alongside pro democracy protests there were some Hong Kongers calling for reunification with mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party. This position became increasingly popular after the death of Mao Zedong and new Chinese leaders moderating government policies. The improving economy of China in the 70s and 80s meant Hong Kongers were less fearful of rejoining. This call for reunification came from both Beijing and people in Hong Kong. The rise of decolonialization and the collapse of the British Empire caused Britain to realize it could no longer hold onto Hong Kong as a colony. Starting in 1980 Britain and China held series of talks on a potential handover of Hong Kong back to China. Culmination occurring on December 19, 1984 with a joint declaration from Britain and China that Hong Kong would be handed over on January 1, 1997 when the 99 year lease on the New Territory expired. This guaranteed the domestic autonomy of Hong Kong for 50 years from the Government in Beijing (Li 31-35).
This declaration caused joy and consternation in Hong Kong. The British government wanting to keep influence in Hong Kong began a series of reforms to develop Western political institutions in Hong Kong (Scott 26-36). First of these being a report on political reforms in 1985 that called for public elections to a legislature that had actual political power. This was not full democratization for it called for a gradual introduction of democracy to Hong Kong. It also created an appointed electoral college who would vote for the Chief Executive of the city, replacing the Royal Governor position. Key to this was permitting business societies and trade union seats in the legislature and guaranteed appointments to the electoral college. This means that businesses in the chamber of commerce, tourism union, airline operator association each elect representatives and electors that create laws or vote for the Chief executive. Britain began implementing these reforms in 1985 and they progressed until the handover in 1997 (Loh 30-34, Scott 31). It is important to note that Hong Kong never had a complete general election. When the handover occurred, business and the general public had equal number of seats in the legislature and the electoral college elected the Chief Executive not the public.
After the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989, many Hong Kongers were afraid the Chinese government would do the same in Hong Kong. This caused an exodus of educated and prosperous Hong Kongers to emigrate to Australia, Britain, Canada, and the US (Scott 161-163). Post-Handover not many things changed within the city for many years. Many political parties and students would continue the call for increased democracy. The Chinese government ensured that democracy would no longer progress in Hong Kong cracking down on many pro-democracy protests over the years(Loh 31-36). The biggest change occurred in 2019 when the Hong Kong Legislature began debate on a new National Security Bill. This bill would effectively end freedom of speech in the city and impose harsh punishments on anti-government protesters, newly included category being pro-democracy protestors. This legislation caused protests that were attacked by police and turned into riots (Dapiran 31-35). The disturbances lasted for months and the largest protest peaked at around 1 million people, about 1/6 of Hong Kong’s total population. The bill was suspended because of the public backlash but the protests continued turning into a prodemocracy movement. The protests only ended in January/February 2020 with the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic(Dapiran 545-550).
During the pandemic the legislature took the bill back up and passed the law. The government arrested and charges hundreds of protestors that demonstrated against the bill after its passing. The government forcibly shut down several newspapers, others closed before they were forced to. Banning two prodemocracy parties and arresting prominent prodemocracy activists (Dapiran 558-590). In 2021 the Legislature passed an electoral reform bill that increased the number of legislative seats allocated for business to 30, shrink the number allocated to publicly elected representatives from 35 to 20, and create 40 seats whose representatives would be elected by the electoral college. Also increasing the size of the electoral college from 1,200 members to 1,500. These seats given to ex-government officials (Bradsher and Ramsey).
These actions have drawn sharp criticism from Western countries. The situation in Hong Kong once front and center in the News about China has lost the attention of the international news media. Instead, eyes are turning to Taiwan to see if China will try and take control of the island nation, fulfilling the One China Policy. This shift of attention has taken the most powerful tool prodemocracy activists have in Hong Kong, western media attention. Therefore, going forward, it is expected to see Hong Kong continue to be integrated into the Chinese political system more fully.
Bradsher, Keith, and Austin Ramzy. “Demanding Loyalty, China Moves to Overhaul Hong Kong Elections.” New York Times, 4 Mar. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/world/asia/china-hong-kong-election-law.html. Accessed 12 Nov. 2022.
Carroll, John M. (John Mark). A Concise History of Hong Kong. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
Li, Pang-kwong. Hong Kong from Britain to China : Political Cleavages, Electoral Dynamics and Institutional Changes. Ashgate, 2000.
Loh, Christine. Functional Constituencies : a Unique Feature of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Hong Kong University Press, 2006.
Scott, Ian. The Public Sector in Hong Kong. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
Welsh, Frank. A Borrowed Place : the History of Hong Kong. Kodansha International, 1993.
Dapiran, Antony. City on Fire : the Fight for Hong Kong. Australian edition., Scribe, 2020.