Hong Kong is to celebrate its 25th anniversary as a special administrative region of China on July 1, 2022. The celebration is both important and perverse. Perverse in that it alludes to something that should never have happened, namely the loss of Hong Kong as an integral part of China; important in that it marks 25 years of freedom from foreign rule.
Ahead of the celebration, on the appointment of the new Hong Kong Special Administratrive Region (HKSAR) chief executive, Chinese President Xi Jinping observed that Hong Kong had “achieved a major transition from chaos to order.” The chaos to which he referred was the repeated protests in 2019, some violent, that included paralysing the airport and the storming of the Legislative Council building. Ostensibly a response to proposed legislation on extradition, some protestors sought Western-style democracy and even Hong Kong independence. The 2020 Law on Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong is taken to have been a response to the protests designed to restore stability.
I wrote to Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, on July 7, 2020 after he had described the national security law as “Orwellian.” I observed that Hong Kong had experienced very little democracy when under British rule, that an independent Hong Kong was no more acceptable to the Chinese government than an independent Isle of Dogs (a peninsular encircled by the River Thames in east London) would be to Britain, and that his words would bring succour to British parliamentarians intent on launching an economic cold war on China.
I was also tempted to question the legitimacy of a one-time official of a colonial power criticising the internal affairs of a former colony. However, Lord Patten is no ordinary official and Hong Kong was never simply a colony. Yes, Hong Kong was acquired by the British through military aggression. But its subsequent success was ensured by its people and China’s government.
Occupied by Britain in 1841, Hong Kong was not a “barren island with hardly a house upon it,” as the U.K. foreign secretary Lord Palmerston shortly afterwards declared. It was, though, a small island community on the very edge of the Qing Dynasty empire. Eyeing the Chinese trade system which, from the mid-1700s had, limited Western trade to Canton (now Guangzhou) only, Hong Kong was declared a free port with access to India, Southeast Asia, and the Americas in which Chinese merchants were welcome. Within 20 years, it had a population of nearly 60,000 mainly drawn from the mainland. While anti-Chinese discrimination was prevalent and the largest firms were run by foreigners, local employment was created, Chinese entrepreneurs prospered, and the British and Qing navies combined forces to suppress piracy.
Along the coastal bank of Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong, a banner with the caption, “Together, we fight the virus!” stands out on May 2, 2022, when the city sees the lowest number of newly-increased COVID-19 cases in three months.
A policy review in 1838 had revealed the debilitating effects of the opium trade on China’s population and, in 1839, foreign traders were ordered to surrender their opium stocks. With the British government prepared to indemnify its merchants against loss, opium belonging to British merchants was publicly burned. A simplified reading of history is that the British then sought compensation for loss of what it deemed to be property not contraband, and war ensued.
More likely, complex motives drove the war: a weakened Whig government needing to divert attention from domestic policy failure and unrest in Ireland, Canada, and Jamaica; a prime minister ardent in his pursuit of the doctrine of free trade; and unrighteous indignation that China refused to negotiate on terms of diplomatic equality.
The war was opposed by the British parliamentary opposition. At the time, William Gladstone, later to become Prime Minister, characterized it as being “unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace,” according to Peter Ward Fay’s The Opium War, 1840–1842. An opening skirmish, the First Battle of Chuenpi, entailed British ships willing not to trade in opium being protected by Chinese fighting junks against the British naval blockade!
In the 1843 Treaty of Nanjing, Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in perpetuity, but this did not stem the Whig government’s imperialist ambitions. Demanding, among other things, opening all of China to British merchants and legalizing the opium trade, with French assistance and American and Russian involvement, Britain launched a second war in 1856 during which the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing was looted and burned. Britain acquired the Kowloon Peninsula in the Convention of Peking in 1860.
Despite declining importance, opium remained a source of tax revenue for the colonial government until Hong Kong was taken over by the Japanese in 1941. Hong Kong also became a gateway through which foriegners entered China and Chinese from the mainland migrated creating the global Chinese diaspora.
Throughout the colonial period, Hong Kong was always a Chinese city. It was built on Chinese talent and could never have prospered without its social, commercial, and political connections to the mainland. Success demanded land for expansion and, in 1898, China leased the New Territories to Britain for 99 years.
Blending Chinese and global ideas, Hong Kong contributed to China’s political and economic development. Most notably, Sun Yat-sen, active in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing the Republic of China, spent some years of his education in Hong Kong where he also devised his revolutionary strategies.
The Communist Party of China, having recruited and trained cadres in Hong Kong, recognized its value as a means of engaging with the rest of the world in international trade and finance and as a source of remittances. A similar logic underpinned China’s planning for the return of Hong kong in 1997. While Deng Xiaoping rejected Britain’s request to continue administering Hong Kong, he proposed the strategy of “one country, two systems.” This meant that Hong Kong would retain its capitalist structure and financial system, enabling China to leverage foreign capital and connections to develop the Pearl River Delta into a global industrial center. In February 1997, 60 percent of the Hong Kong population expressed a preference for reunification with China rather than remaining a British colony, according to The Hong Kong–China Nexus: A Brief History by John Carroll.
Citizens taking a selfie in front of Christmas decorations at the Ocean Terminal square in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, on December 20, 2020.
Patten, becoming governor of Hong Kong after losing his parliamentary seat in the 1992 British general election, sought to implement what Suzanne Pepper has described as a “crash course in Western democracy.” This aimed to widen Hong Kong’s electoral base and strengthen representation in the Legislative Council. Widely interpreted as an attempt to extend British influence beyond 1997 and to allow it to withdraw with a modicum of dignity from its last major colonial outpost, Patten’s reforms contributed to the chaos to which President Xi referred. An idealistic electorate, ill-informed of the limits to democracy, expected the impossible.
Moreover, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region inherited all the deficiencies of the colonial period: an excessively powerful business elite; exceptional income and wealth inequality; conservative politics; an unbalanced housing sector; and an underdeveloped welfare sector. These inhibited social and economic advancement, generating social frustrations that were magnified as living standards on the Chinese mainland rose more quickly.
Without channels for airing grievances, the scale and direction of the protests would have challenged any government, especially as they became embroiled in geopolitical rivalries. Leaders of the protests urged the U.S. Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act sanctioning anyone believed to be “responsible for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing.” This now includes the newly appointed HKSAR chief executive – equivalent to Beijing sanctioning the mayor of New York City.
Beijing’s response has been to insist that all who run Hong Kong must be patriots. This corresponds to the Oath of Allegiance taken by Patten as a U.K. Member of Parliament, or the Oath of Office taken, for example, by senators in the United States. Likewise, the Law on Safeguarding National Security – prohibiting treason, secession, sedition, subversion – is remarkably similar in its institutional form to the U.S. National Security Act enacted in 1947 in response to perceived external threats.
The political art in all security matters is to ensure that individual freedoms are not inadvertently suppressed, or constructive criticism prevented. If Hong Kong SAR is successful in this, its 50th anniversary in 2047 will not mark the end of the practice of the “one country, two systems” policy, but will be an occasion for further celebration.
ROBERT WALKER is a professor with China Academy of Social Management/School of Sociology, Beijing Normal University, and professor emeritus and emeritus fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford. He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Academy of Social Sciences in the U.K.