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In the very long scale of history, Hong Kong as we know it today has existed for a mere blink of an eye. But there was a lot going on in the region before that wintry morning in 1841 when a contingent of British marines clambered ashore and planted the Union flag on the western part of Hong Kong Island, claiming it for the British Crown.

Early inhabitants

Hong Kong has supported human life since at least the late Stone Age. Finds uncovered at almost 100 archaeological sites in the territory, including a rich burial ground discovered on the island of Ma Wan in 1997 and three hoards on the west coast of the Tuen Mun peninsula, suggest that the inhabitants of these settlements were warlike. The remnants of Bronze Age habitations (c 1500–220 BC) unearthed on Lamma and Lantau Islands and at around 20 other sites – as well as the eight geometric rock carvings that can still be viewed at various locations along Hong Kong’s coastline – also indicate that these early peoples practised some form of ancient religion based on cosmology. Other finds indicate Hong Kong’s Stone Age inhabitants also enjoyed a relatively nutritious diet of iron-rich vegetables, small mammals, shellfish and fish harvested far offshore.

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The five great clans

Just when the area that is now Hong Kong became an integral part of the Chinese empire is difficult to say. What is certain, however, is that by the time of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25–220), Chinese imperial rule had been extended over the region. The discovery of a number of Han coins on Lantau and Kau Sai Chau Islands and at several important digs, including the tomb of a senior Han warrior at Lei Cheng Uk in central Kowloon and So Kwun Wat southeast of Tuen Mun, attests to this.

The first of Hong Kong’s mighty ‘Five Clans’, Han Chinese whose descendants hold political and economic clout to this day, began settling the area around the 12th century. The first and most powerful of the arrivals were the Tang, who initially settled around Kam Tin (tì means ‘field’). The once-moated hamlet of Kat Hing Wai (wài means ‘protective wall’), which is probably the most visited of the remaining traditional walled villages in the New Territories, formed part of this cluster.

The Tang were followed by the Hau, who spread around present-day Sheung Shui, and the Pang from central Jiangsu province, who settled in what is now the area around Fanling. These three clans were followed by the Liu in the 15th century and the Man a century later.

The Cantonese-speaking newcomers called themselves bún-day (Punti), meaning ‘indigenous’ or ‘local’ – something they clearly were not. They looked down on the original inhabitants, many of whom had been shunted off the land and had moved onto the sea to live on boats. It is thought that today’s fisherpeople called, the Tanka, emerged from this persecuted group.

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An imperial outpost

Clinging to the southern edge of the Chinese province of Canton (now Guangdong), the pen­insula and islands that became the territory of Hong Kong counted only as a remote pocket in a neglected corner of the Chinese empire. Among the scattered communities of farmers and fisherfolk were pirates who hid from the authorities among the rocky islands that afforded easy access to the nearby Pearl River.

Hong Kong’s first recorded encounter with imperial China in the 13th century was as brief as it was tragic. In 1276 a group of loyal retainers of the Song dynasty (AD 960–1279) smuggled the boy emperor, Duan Zong, south to the remote fringes of the empire after the Song capital, Hangzhou, had fallen to the Mongol hordes sweeping China. Nine-year-old Duan Zong drowned when Mongol ships defeated the tattered remnants of the imperial fleet in a battle on the Pearl River.

The Punti flourished until the struggle that saw the moribund Ming dynasty (1368–1644) overthrown. The victorious Qing (1644–1911), angered by the resistance put up by southerners loyal to the ancien régime and determined to solve the endemic problem of piracy, in the 1660s ordered a forced evacuation inland of all the inhabitants of Guangdong’s coastal San On district, including Hong Kong.

These turbulent times saw the birth of the Triads. Originally founded as patriotic secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the Qing dynasty and restoring the Ming, they would degenerate over the centuries into Hong Kong’s own version of the Mafia. Today’s Triads still recite an oath of allegiance to the Ming, but their loyalty is to the dollar rather than the vanquished Son of Heaven.

More than four generations passed before the population was able to recover to its mid-17th-century level, boosted in part by the influx of the Hakka (Cantonese for ‘guest people’), who moved here in the 18th century and up to the mid-19th century. A few vestiges of their language, songs and folklore survive, most visibly in the wide-brimmed, black-fringed bamboo hats sported by Hakka women in the New Territories.

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Arrival of the outer barbarians

For centuries, the Pearl River estuary had been an important trading artery centred on the port of Canton (now Guangzhou). Arab traders had entered – and sacked – the settlement as early as the 8th century AD. Guangzhou was 2500km south of Peking, and the Cantonese view that the ‘mountains are high and the emperor is far away’ was not disputed in the imperial capital. The Ming emperors regarded their subjects to the south as no less than witches and sorcerers, their language unintelligible and their culinary predilections downright disgusting. It was therefore fitting that the Cantonese should trade with the ‘outer barbarians’, or foreign traders.

Regular trade between China and Europe began in 1557 when Portuguese navigators set up a base in Macau, 65km west of Hong Kong. Dutch traders came in the wake of the Portuguese, followed by the French. British ships appeared as early as 1685 from the East India Company concessions along the coast of India, and by 1714 the company had established offices and warehouses with ‘factors’ (managers) in Guangzhou to trade for tea, silk and porcelain. By the end of the 18th century, the flags of more than a dozen nations, including Britain, flew over the buildings along 13 Factories St.

In 1757 an imperial edict awarded the cohong (a local merchants’ guild), the monopoly on China’s trade with foreigners, restricting the European traders. It was illegal for them to learn the Chinese language or to deal with anyone except merchants of the cohong; they could not enter Guangzhou proper but were restricted to Shamian Island in the Pearl River; they were allowed to remain only for the trading season (November to May).

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Opium & war

China didn’t reciprocate Europe’s voracious demand for its products, especially tea, for the most part shunning foreign manufactured goods. The foreigners’ ensuing trade deficit was soon reversed, however, after the British discovered a commodity that the Chinese did want: opium.

The British, with a virtually inexhaustible supply of the drug from the poppy fields of India, developed the trade aggressively. Alarmed to see its silver draining from the country to pay for the opium and the spread of addiction, Emperor Chia Ch’ing (Jiaqing; r 1796–1820) issued an edict in 1799 banning the trade of opium in China, while his son and successor, Tao Kuang (Dao Guang; r 1820–50), banned the drug from Whampoa (now Huangpo) and Macau in 1820.

In Guangzhou the cohong and corrupt officials helped ensure the trade continued, and both sides amassed great fortunes. This was all supposed to change in June 1839 with the arrival of Lin Zexu, governor of Hunan and a mandarin of great integrity, who surrounded the British garrison in Guangzhou and cut off their food supplies, forcing them to turn over more than 20,000 chests of the drug.

The British chief superintendent of trade, Captain Charles Elliot, suspended all trade with China while he awaited instructions from London. The foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, goaded by prominent Scottish merchants William Jardine and James Matheson, ordered the Royal Navy in Guangzhou to force a settlement in Sino-British commercial relations. An expeditionary force of 4000 men under Rear Admiral George Elliot (a cousin of Charles) departed to extract reparations and secure favourable trade arrangements from the Chinese government.

What would become known as the First Opium War (or First Anglo-Chinese War) began in June 1840. British forces besieged Guangzhou before sailing north and occupying or blockading a number of ports and cities along the Yangtze River and the coast as far as Shanghai. To the emperor’s great alarm, the force threatened Beijing, and he sent his envoy (and Lin’s successor) Qi Shan to negotiate with the Elliots. In exchange for the British withdrawal from northern China, Qi agreed to the Convention of Chuenpi (now Chuanbi), which ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain.

Though neither side, in fact, actually accepted the terms of the convention, a couple of subsequent events decided Hong Kong’s fate. In January 1841 a naval landing party hoisted the British flag at Possession Point (now Possession St) on Hong Kong Island. The following month Captain Elliot attacked the Bogue Fort in Humen, took control of the Pearl River and laid siege to Guangzhou, withdrawing only after having extracted concessions from merchants there. Six months later a powerful British force led by Elliot’s successor, Sir Henry Pottinger, sailed north and seized Amoy (Xiamen), Ningpo (Ningbo), Shanghai and other ports. With the strategic city of Nanking (Nanjing) under immediate threat, the Chinese were forced to accept Britain’s terms.

The Treaty of Nanking abolished the monopoly system of trade, opened five ‘treaty ports’ to British residents and foreign trade, exempted British nationals from all Chinese laws and ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British ‘in perpetuity’.

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British Hong Kong

‘Albert is so amused at my having got the island of Hong Kong’, wrote Queen Victoria to King Leopold of Belgium in 1841. At the time, Hong Kong was little more than a backwater of about 20 villages and hamlets. It did offer one distinct advantage for the British trading fleet, however: a deep, well-sheltered harbour that went by the Cantonese name hèung-gáwng (‘fragrant harbour’), so named after the scent from sandalwood incense factories that wafted across the harbour from what is now Aberdeen at the western edge of the island.

As Captain Elliot saw it, from here the British Empire and its merchants could conduct all their trade with China and establish a permanent outpost, under British sovereignty, in the Far East. But the British merchants in Guangzhou and the Royal Navy sided with Lord Palmerston; a small barren island with nary a house on it was not the type of sweeping concession that a British victory was supposed to achieve. Nonetheless, Hong Kong formally became a British possession on 26 June 1843, and its first governor, Sir Henry Pottinger, took charge. A primitive chaotic and lawless settlement soon sprang up.

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Growing pains

What would later be called the Second Opium War (or Second Anglo-Chinese War) broke out in October 1856. The first stage of the war was brought to an end two years later by the Treaty of Tientsin (Tianjin), which gave foreigners the right to diplomatic representation in Beijing.

Despite warnings from the Chinese, the British tried to capitalise on this agreement in 1859 by sending a flotilla carrying the first British envoy and minister plenipotentiary up the Pei Ho River to Beijing. The Chinese fired on the armada, which sustained heavy losses. Using this as a pretext, a combined British and French force invaded China and marched on Beijing. The victorious British forced the Chinese to the Convention of Peking in 1860, which ratified the Treaty of Tientsin and ceded the Kowloon peninsula and Stonecutters Island to Britain. Britain was now in complete control of Victoria Harbour and its approaches.

Hong Kong’s population had leapt from 33,000 in 1850 to 265,000 in 1900 and the British army felt it needed to command the mountains of the New Territories to protect the growing colony and provide water to it. When the Qing dynasty was at its nadir, the British government petitioned China for a land extension extending Hong Kong into the New Territories. The June 1898 Convention of Peking handed Britain a larger-than-expected slice of territory running north to the Shumchun (Shenzhen) River, and 235 islands, increasing the colony’s size by 90%.

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A sleepy backwater

While the hong – Hong Kong’s major trading houses, including Jardine, Matheson and Swire – prospered from their trade with China, the colony hardly thrived in its first few decades. Fever, bubonic plague and typhoons threatened life and property, and at first the colony attracted a fair number of criminals and vice merchants. Opium dens, gambling clubs and brothels proliferated; just a year after Britain took possession, an estimated 450 prostitutes worked out of two dozen brothels. Australian ‘actresses’ were based in Lyndhurst Tce, known as baak fàa gàai (‘White Flower Street’), in Chinese.

Gradually, however, Hong Kong began to shape itself into a more substantial community. Gas and electrical power companies sprang up, ferries, trams, the Kowloon-Canton Railway and the newfangled High Level Tramway (later known as the Peak Tram) provided a decent transport network, and land was reclaimed. Colonials flocked to the races at Happy Valley and visitors were as impressed with the colony’s social life as they were with its development. Nonetheless, from the late 19th century right up to WWII, Hong Kong lived in the shadow of the treaty port of Shanghai, which had become Asia’s premier trade and financial centre – not to mention its style capital.

The colony’s population continued to grow thanks to waves of immigrants fleeing the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which ousted the decaying Qing dynasty and ushered in several decades of strife, rampaging warlords and famine. The civil war in China kept the numbers of refugees entering the colony high, but the stream became a flood after Japan invaded China in 1937.

Hong Kong’s status as a British colony would offer the refugees only a temporary haven. The day after Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, its military machine swept down from Guangzhou and into Hong Kong.

Conditions under Japanese rule were harsh, with indiscriminate massacres of mostly Chinese civilians; Western civilians were incarcerated at Stanley Prison on Hong Kong Island. Many Hong Kong Chinese fled to Macau, administered by neutral Portugal.

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The road to boomtown

After Japan’s withdrawal from Hong Kong, and subsequent surrender in August 1945, the colony looked set to resume its hibernation. But events both at home and on the mainland forced the colony in a new direction.

Just before WWII Hong Kong had begun to shift from entrepôt trade servicing China to home-grown manufacturing. The turmoil on the mainland, leading to the defeat of the Nationalists by the victorious Communists in 1949, unleashed a torrent of refugees – both rich and poor – into Hong Kong.

When Beijing sided with North Korea that year and went to war against the forces of the USA and the UN, the UN embargo on all trade with China (1951) threatened to strangle the colony economically. But on a paltry, war-torn foundation, local and foreign businesses built a huge manufacturing (notably textiles and garments) and financial services centre that transformed Hong Kong into one of the world’s great economic miracles.

Much of Hong Kong’s success depended on the enormous pool of cheap labour from China, often directed by entrepreneurs seeking refuge from the Communist mainland. Working conditions in those early years of economic revolution were often Dickensian: 16-hour days, unsafe working conditions, low wages and child labour were all common. Refugee workers endured, and some even earned their way out of poverty into prosperity. The Hong Kong government, under international pressure, eventually began to establish and enforce labour standards, and the situation gradually improved.

Despite the improvements, trouble flared up in the 1950s and ’60s due to social discontent and poor working conditions. Feuding between Communist and Nationalist supporters in Hong Kong led to riots in 1957 and again in 1962 and 1966.

When the Communists came to power in China in 1949, many people were sure that Hong Kong would be overrun. Even without force, the Chinese could simply have ripped down the fence on the border and sent the masses to settle on Hong Kong territory. But though the Chinese government continued to denounce the ‘unequal treaties’, it recognised Hong Kong’s importance to the national economy.

In 1967, at the height of the so-called Cultural Revolution, when the ultraleftist Red Guards were in de facto control in China, Hong Kong’s stability again looked precarious. Riots rocked the colony, bringing with them a wave of bombings, looting and arson attacks.

Property values in Hong Kong plunged, as did China’s foreign-exchange earnings, as trade and tourism ground to a halt. However, the bulk of the population – and, importantly, the Hong Kong police – stood firm with the colonial authorities. By the end of the 1960s, China, largely due to the intervention of Premier Chou Enlai, had come to its senses and order had been restored.

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A society in transition

After ‘a testing time for the people of Hong Kong’, as the Hong Kong Yearbook summed it up at the end of 1967, Hong Kong got on with the business of making money, which included improving the territory’s infrastructure. In 1973 the first ‘New Town’ – Sha Tin – was completed, marking the start of a massive and unprecedented public-housing programme that would, and still does, house millions of Hong Kong people.

Although Hong Kong’s stock market collapsed in 1973, its economy resumed its upward trend later in the decade. At the same time many of Hong Kong’s neighbours, including Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, began to mimic the colony’s success. Just as their cheap labour was threatening to undermine the competitive edge of Hong Kong manufacturers, China began to emerge from its self-imposed isolation.

The ‘Open Door’ policy of Deng Xiaoping, who took control of China in the confusion after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, revived Hong Kong’s role as the gateway to the mainland and it boomed. Underpinning the boom was the drive to rake in as much profit as possible ahead of 1997, when Hong Kong’s once and future master would again take over.

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The 1997 question

Few people gave much thought to Hong Kong’s future until the late 1970s, when the British and Chinese governments met for the first time to decide what would happen in (and after) 1997. Britain was legally bound to hand back only the New Territories – not Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which had been ceded to it forever. However, the fact that nearly half of Hong Kong’s population lived in the New Territories by that time made it an untenable division.

It was Deng Xiaoping who decided that the time was ripe to recover Hong Kong, forcing the British to the negotiating table. The inevitable conclusion laid to rest political jitters and commercial concerns that had seen the Hong Kong dollar collapse – and subsequently be pegged to the US dollar – in 1983, but there was considerable resentment that the fate of 5.5 million people had been decided without their input and that Whitehall had chosen not to provide Hong Kong people with full British passports and the right of abode in the UK.

Despite soothing words from the Chinese, British and Hong Kong governments, over the next 13 years the population of Hong Kong suffered considerable anxiety at the possible political and economic consequences of the handover. In the anxious years leading up to the handover, thousands of Hong Kong citizens emigrated to Canada, the USA, Australia, the UK and New Zealand.

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Tiananmen & its aftermath

The concern of many Hong Kong people over their future turned to out-and-out fear on 4 June 1989, when Chinese troops massacred prodemocracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The events horrified Hong Kong people, many of whom had donated funds and goods to the demonstrators. As the Chinese authorities spread out to hunt down activists, an underground smuggling operation, code-named Yellow Bird, was set up in Hong Kong to spirit them to safety overseas.

The massacre was a watershed for Hong Kong. Sino-British relations deteriorated, the stock market fell 22% in one day and a great deal of capital left the territory for destinations overseas.

The Hong Kong government sought to rebuild confidence by announcing plans for a new airport and shipping port; with an estimated price tag of $160 billion, this was the world’s most expensive infrastructure project of the day. But China had already signalled its intentions loudly and clearly.

Hong Kong–based Chinese officials who had spoken out against the Tiananmen killings were yanked from their posts or sought asylum in the USA and Europe. Local Hong Kong people with money and skills made a mad dash to emigrate to any country that would take them. During the worst period more than 1000 people were leaving each week, especially for Canada and Australia.

Tiananmen had strengthened the resolve of those people who either could not or would not leave, giving rise to the territory’s first official political parties. In a bid to restore credibility, the government introduced a Bill of Rights in 1990, and the following year bestowed on Hong Kong citizens the right to choose 18 of the 60 members of the Legislative Council (Legco), which until then had been essentially a rubber-stamp body chosen by the government and special-interest groups.

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Democracy & the last governor

Hong Kong was never as politically apathetic as was generally thought in the 1970s and ’80s. The word ‘party’ may have been anathema to the refugees who had fled from the Communists or Nationalists in the 1930s and ’40s, but not necessarily to their sons and daughters.

Born and bred in the territory, these first-generation Hong Kong youths were entering universities and colleges by the 1970s and becoming politically active. Like student activists everywhere they were passionate and idealistic, agitating successfully for Chinese to be recognised as an official language alongside English. They opposed colonialism, expressed pride in their Chinese heritage and railed against the benign dictatorship of the Hong Kong colonial government. But their numbers were split between those who supported China – and the Chinese Communist Party – at all costs and those who had reservations or even mistrusted it.

The first to consider themselves ‘Hong Kong people’ rather than refugees from China, this generation formed the pressure groups emerging in the 1980s to debate Hong Kong’s future. By the end of the decade they were coalescing into nascent political parties and preparing for the 1991 Legco (legislative council) elections.

The first party to emerge was the United Democratic Party, led by outspoken democrats Martin Lee and Szeto Wah. The pair, initially courted by China for their anticolonial positions and appointed to the committee that drafted the Basic Law, subsequently infuriated Beijing by publicly burning copies of the proto-constitution in protest over the Tiananmen massacre. Predictably, China denounced them as subversives.

Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s 28th – and last – British governor arrived in 1992, pledging to his sceptical citizens to get democracy back on track. China reacted badly, first levelling daily verbal attacks at the governor, then threatening the post-1997 careers of any prodemocracy politicians or officials. When these tactics failed, China targeted Hong Kong’s economy. Negotiations on certain business contracts straddling 1997 suddenly came to a halt, and Beijing scared off foreign investors by boycotting all talks on the new airport programme.

Sensing that it had alienated even its supporters in Hong Kong, China backed down and in 1994 gave its blessing to the new airport at Chek Lap Kok. It remained hostile to direct elections, however, and vowed to disband the democratically elected legislature after 1997.

In August 1994 China adopted a resolution to abolish the terms of office of Hong Kong’s three tiers of elected bodies: the legislature, the municipal councils and the district boards. A Provisional Legislative Council was elected by Beijing, which included pro-Beijing councillors who had been defeated by democratic ones in the sitting Legco. The rival chamber met over the border in Shenzhen, as it had no authority in Hong Kong until the transfer of power three years later. This provisional body served until May 1998, when a new Legislative Council was elected partially by the people of Hong Kong, partially by business constituencies and partially by power brokers in Beijing.

As for the executive branch of power, no one was fooled by the pseudo election, choreographed by China in 1996, to select Hong Kong’s first postcolonial leader. But Tung Chee Hwa (1937–), the Shanghai-born shipping magnate destined to become the SAR’s first chief executive, won approval by retaining Patten’s right-hand woman, Anson Chan, as his chief secretary and Donald Tsang as financial secretary.

China agreed to a low-key entry into Hong Kong, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops were trucked straight to their barracks in Stanley, Kowloon Tong and Bonham Rd in the Mid-Levels. On the night of 30 June 1997 the handover celebrations held in the purpose-built extension of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai were watched by millions of people around the world. Chris Patten shed a tear while Chinese Premier Jiang Zemin beamed and Prince Charles was outwardly stoic (but privately scathing, describing the Chinese leaders in a diary leaked years later to the British tabloids as ‘appalling old waxworks’).

So the curtain fell on a century and a half of British rule and the new chief executive Tung summed up Chinese feelings about the handover with the words: ‘Now we are masters of our own house.’

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The recent past

Visitors returning to Hong Kong since July 1997 would see and feel little material difference walking around the city today. China has been largely true to its word in allowing Hong Kong the high level of the autonomy it enjoyed under the previous regime. Apart from the ever-higher buildings and the ever-narrowing gap between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, business goes on as it did before the handover with ever-greater frenzy and bustle in this booming global financial and commercial centre. Perhaps the most striking thing for returning visitors from the West is the influx of a new breed of visitor: mainland Chinese, who now make up more than half the territory’s visitor numbers.

Not everything has been rosy since the handover, however, and the mainland stands accused of interfering in Hong Kong’s independence over a number of issues. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping’s policy of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ would always have its fault lines. His deft verbal fudge over the issue of just how much autonomy Hong Kong should enjoy continues to be tested over a series of issues: perceived attempts by the mainland to erode civil liberties and press freedoms; the debate over whether the rule of law is being maintained in the territory; and vocal calls for real democracy and better representation for all the territory’s people.

Clearly the mainland government wields huge influence both benign and malign but in most cases still prefers to tread lightly, honouring the spirit of the handover agreement to a great extent. Perhaps the real surprise should be that a monolithic one-party state (and one which theoretically remains a Communist one) has resisted daily tinkering in the affairs of a nakedly capitalistic city state based on the Western rule of law. A measure of just how successful the handover has been came in a 2007 BBC interview with Baroness Thatcher. Marking the 10th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, Thatcher, to her own surprise, deemed China’s overall performance a success.

There’s much debate about how much influence the mainland is bringing to bear overtly or covertly in Hong Kong. But might history one day identify an equal and opposite reaction going on, too? Hong Kong’s dazzling status and success arguably contains within it a kind of ‘soft’ power to influence thinking in the mainland. It might be hard to measure, but in the enclave that sheltered and inspired the fathers of powerful mainland movements (Sun Yatsen and Zhou Enlai) it should not be dismissed.

The fact remains, however, that true democracy still looks to be a long way off. Chinese people might now rule the roost but, more than a decade on from colonial days, the Legislative Council remains essentially toothless and ultimate power rests with the chief executive (and his ultimate masters), just as it did with the British governor.

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Hong Kong post-1997

Hong Kong might be a buoyant, self-confident place these days, but there were some bumps along the way. Almost as soon as the euphoria of the 1997 handover faded things started going badly in Hong Kong. A brutal economic recession, a plague and an ill-fated launch for the new airport helped to sandbag the new Hong Kong SAR in its early years.

The financial crisis that had rocked other parts of Asia began to be felt in Hong Kong at the end of 1997. A strain of deadly avian flu, which many people feared would become a worldwide epidemic, saw Hong Kong slaughtering some 1.4 million chickens. Following on from this was the ‘Chek Lap Kok-up’ of 1998, when the much-trumpeted new airport opened to a litany of disasters. Hong Kong was making world headlines again – but for all the wrong reasons.

The credibility of the SAR administration was severely damaged in 1999 when the government challenged a High Court ruling allowing residency rights for the China-born offspring of parents who became Hong Kong citizens after 1997. The ruling was based on certain clauses of the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s miniconstitution – that made 1.6 million people from the mainland eligible for right of abode in the territory. The SAR administration appealed to the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp parliament, to ‘reinterpret’ these clauses. The NPC complied, and ruled according to what the law drafters ‘meant’ but had somehow failed to write into law. Once again many people felt that the government was acting in its own – and not their – interest.

Meanwhile, chief executive Tung Chee Hwa’s popularity declined rapidly. He was increasingly seen as Beijing’s lackey, often dictatorial and aloof but strangely weak and indecisive in times of crisis. One example of the latter was his condemnation of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that had emerged in China in 1992 and had earned the wrath of the mainland government, which brutally suppressed the movement.

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History books

Foreign Mud by Maurice Collis (1946) – first published just after WWII, this is an excellent historical reconstruction of the sordid events leading to the First Opium War that Britain fought with China.

Hong Kong: China’s New Colony by Stephen Vines (1998) – this excellent history continues where most books on Hong Kong leave off, examining the territory after the change in landlords. It pulls very few punches.

Hong Kong: Epilogue to an Empire by Jan Morris (1997) – this anecdotal history of the territory shortly before the handover moves effortlessly between past and present as it explains what made Hong Kong so unique among the colonies of the British Empire. It’s a dated but highly recommended read.

Old Hong Kong by Formasia (1999) – this fascinating large-format pictorial of old photographs comes in three volumes: Volume I covers the period from 1860 to 1900; Volume II from 1901 to 1945; and Volume III from 1950 to 1997.

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One country, two systems

Under the agreement signed by China and Britain, which is enshrined in a document known as The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, the ‘British-administered territory’ of Hong Kong would disappear and be reborn as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. This meant the Hong Kong SAR would be permitted to continue with its current capitalist system, while across the border the Chinese would remain with China’s version of socialism. The Chinese catch phrase for this was ‘One Country, Two Systems’.

In 1988 the details of this rather unorthodox system of government were spelled out in The Basic Law for Hong Kong, the SAR’s future constitution. The Basic Law, ratified by the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing in 1990, preserved Hong Kong’s English common-law judicial system and guaranteed the right of property and ownership. It also included the rights of assembly, free speech, association, travel and movement, correspondence, choice of occupation, academic research, religious belief and the right to strike. The SAR would enjoy a high degree of autonomy with the exception of foreign affairs and matters of defence.

As guarantees of individual freedoms and respect for human rights are written into China’s own constitution, few Hong Kong Chinese held much faith in the Basic Law. The guarantees were seen as empty promises and quite a few felt the Basic Law provided Beijing with the means to interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs to preserve public order, public morals and national security.

Although Hong Kong under the British had never been more than a benignly ruled oligarchy, Whitehall had nevertheless promised to introduce democratic reforms prior to the handover. But it soon became apparent that British and Chinese definitions of democracy differed considerably. Beijing made it abundantly clear that it would not allow Hong Kong to establish its own democratically elected government. The chief executive was to be chosen by a Beijing-appointed panel of delegates; the people of Hong Kong would elect some lower officials. In the face of opposition from Beijing, planned elections for 1988 were postponed.

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The clamour for democracy

Despite his poor standing in the polls, Tung was returned for a second five-year term in March 2002 and moved to reform the executive branch, instituting a cabinetlike system within which secretaries would be held accountable for their portfolios.

Controversy continued to dog his time in office, however, most notably in March 2003, with the government’s failure to contain the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic at an early stage, provoking a torrent of blame. The outbreak killed 299 people, infected 1755 and all but closed Hong Kong down for weeks.

In July 2003 the government came under fire yet again over a deeply unpopular piece of new legislation. Called Article 23, which Beijing had added to Hong Kong’s Basic Law in the aftermath of the Tiananmen student movement of 1989, the bill dealt with acts ‘endangering public security’, such as treason, subversion and sedition. In the face of massive public protests – of 500,000 people or more – the government shelved the bill indefinitely.

At the end of the following year the government was forced to scrap the sale of a public-housing property fund worth US$2.7 billion just hours before it was due to list when a court sided with an elderly tenant’s challenge to the sale. It was a major blow to investors – something not lost on the leadership in Beijing.

Soon after, Chinese President Hu Jintao called on Tung to ‘reflect on the past’ and ‘learn from his mistakes’, a severe scolding by Chinese political standards. In March 2005 Tung announced his resignation as chief executive, citing overwork as the reason. His interim replacement was the bow-tie-wearing chief secretary Sir Donald Tsang, who straddled both Hong Kong’s regimes as financial secretary from 1995 to 2001 and had been knighted under Chris Patten in 1997. Tsang was elected uncontested in June 2005, two weeks after the nomination period closed.

Compared to the lacklustre Tung, Tsang was a welcome replacement for many. On good terms with the Beijing powerbrokers, he also sustained very high public approval ratings beyond the usual political honeymoon period (helped no doubt by a resurgent economy, and bullish stock and housing markets).

In 2007 Tsang stood again for election, and was elected with ease. He was the first chief executive not to stand unopposed. His contestant, prodemocracy activist Alan Leong, came a distant second, but for many who yearn for a truly democratic Hong Kong it is a sign of hope that Hong Kong people may one day see a government truly elected by them rather than by a cabal dominated by those loyal to local business and to the mainland powers that be.

Yearnings for democracy aside, more than 10 years on from the handover, the mood in Hong Kong is buoyant, thanks in large part to a resurgent economy taking an ever-fatter tithe from China’s boom.

In the later years of the decade Hong Kong has a spring in its step and most of its citizens are proud to say they are citizens of the SAR as well, crucially, as subjects of China, however confusing and problematic that dual identity might sometimes seem.

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