Hong Kong’s Journey Through Colonization

By Navya Mohindra

In light of recent events in Hong Kong, the international community has been forced to delve deeper into the region’s history, especially its administration and handover to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Let’s start from the beginning.

Opium Wars

The Opium Wars were two armed conflicts in China in the mid-19th century between the forces of western countries and the Qing dynasty. The first opium war (1839-42) was fought between China and Britain and the second war was fought by France and Britain against China.

The wars arose from China’s attempt to suppress the opium trade. Since the 18th century, foreign traders (primarily British) started illegally importing opium to China from India, resulting in widespread addiction causing serious social and economic disruption in the country.

In the spring of 1839, the Chinese government confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of opium. Hostilities broke out as the situation became worse.

However, the clash came to an end with the British invasion of Nanjing, resulting in the Treaty of Nanjing being signed.

According to this treaty, China had to pay a large compensation, increase trading ports for the British, and yield Hong Kong island. However, the treaty did not resolve the dispute.

In the mid-1850s, the Qing government was already overwhelmed by the Taiping Rebellion and the British took this as the perfect opportunity to strike, seeking to increase their trading rights.

The French also decided to join the British military expedition and the Chinese were forced into negotiations leading to the signing of the Treaty of Tianjin in June 1858. In further negotiations, the importation of opium was legalized.

Later, the Chinese were compelled to sign the Beijing Convention, also known as Convention of Peking, turning over the southern portion of the Kowloon Peninsula to the British.

With the Chinese already weakened by the first Sino-Japanese war, Britain further obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories between Boundary street and Shenzhen River, the modern border between Hong Kong and China.

This treaty meant that Britain was expected to hand back the region on July 1, 1997.

Life Under the Japanese

For a brief period of three years and eight months (December 1941- August 1945), Hong Kong was under Japanese occupation.

All trade and economic activities were strictly regulated by the Japanese authorities, who even took control of the majority of the factories. The Hong Kong Dollar was outlawed and replaced by the Japanese Military Yen.

The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) was replaced by two Imperial Japanese Banks: the Yokohama Specie Bank and Bank of Taiwan (in order to boost Japanese influence).

Due to the aerial bombardment of Hong Kong, courtesy of the Americans, public transportation, and utilities inevitably failed.

Soon, the Japanese language became mandatory, and performing inadequately in Japanese exams risked corporal punishment.

English was forbidden to be taught and was not tolerated even outside the classroom. Various Hong Kong streets, buildings, etc. were renamed:

  • Connaught Place to Nakasumiyoshi-dori

  • Des-Voeux Road Central to Higashowa-dori

  • Prince Edward Road to Kahima-dori

  • Western District to Sanotai/Sanoku

  • The Botanical Garden to Taisho Park

  • The Peninsula Hotel to the Toa Hotel

  • The Racecourse to Keibajo

This continued until Japan surrendered at the end of the second world war, leading to a handover of Hong Kong from the Imperial Japanese Army to the Royal Navy on 30 August 1945, restoring British Control.

Under the British

The east portion of colonial Hong Kong was mostly dedicated to the British, filled with racecourses, parade grounds, barracks, polo, and cricket grounds while the western portion was filled with Chinese shops, markets, etc.

There were a number of major effects due to British colonization in Hong Kong:

  • Culture

  • Language

  • Education

  • Laws and Legislation

  • Military

  • Economy

  • Religion

  • Government employees

  • Nationality

  • Customs

Hong Kong soon became a mix of European and Asian cultures. English became the one and only official language, requiring government employees to communicate in it.

Schools inherited the British education system, making English a major subject.

Hong Kong assumed legal systems from Britain, the USA, and France. The Legislative Council was established in 1843.

The military was taken over and controlled by the British. As a number of upper-middle-class Hong Kong Citizens immigrated to Britain and many British moved to Hong Kong, Christianity and Catholicism gained prominence, making western holidays like Christmas widely celebrated in Hong Kong.

The arrival of the British opened a gateway to Hong Kong’s market for western countries. There was a rapid increase in businessmen seeking to do business in Hong Kong. So, in a way, business and the economy prospered due to the British.

The Handover

In 1982, with the expiration date for British control of the New Territories looming, British and Chinese leaders met with each other to negotiate the transition.

As the 1898 lease didn’t apply to Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula south of Boundary Street, Britain could have tried to negotiate to keep those regions.

However, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ultimately didn’t think that those two regions would be able to survive on their own.

After all, what option did they have? Refusing negotiation would lead to China forcefully entering and taking over.

On December 19, 1984, British PM Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

This declaration stipulated that Britain would not only return the New Territories but also Kowloon and British Hong Kong when the lease expired.

According to the declaration's terms, Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under the People's Republic of China (PRC), and it was expected to enjoy a high degree of autonomy outside of foreign affairs and defense.

For a period of 50 years after the end of the lease, Hong Kong would remain a free port with a separate customs territory and would sustain markets for free exchange.

The United Kingdom and People’s Republic of China agreed and settled on the One Country, Two Systems principle.

In 2019, protests broke out over a proposed bill that would violate the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement by allowing extradition to mainland China.

The bill would allow local authorities to detain and extradite fugitives who are wanted in territories that do not have extradition agreements with Hong Kong, such as mainland China and Taiwan.

Despite the bill being abandoned, it did not quell the uprisings.

This is one of the few cases where British colonization brought success and prosperity to a region. However, now that Hong Kong is under the People’s Republic of China, there is uncertainty around what will happen when the 50 year handover period expires in 2047.


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