On This Day

Jakub Halun/Creative Commons

On This Day: Britain Returns Hong Kong to China

June 30, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On June 30, 1997, Hong Kong, which had been a British colony since 1842, was returned to Chinese sovereignty.

Union Jack Lowered in Hong Kong

At midnight of July 1, 1997, 155 years after it had gained control of the island of Hong Kong following the First Opium War, Britain relinquished control of the colony, which now included parts of the Chinese mainland and outlying islands.

On the afternoon of June 30, Chris Patten, the 28th and final British governor of Hong Kong, left the Government House, the governor’s residence, for the final time. That night, a ceremony was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, featuring a number of distinguished officials, including Patten, Prince Charles, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Tung Chee-hwa, the new chief executive of Hong Kong.

The ceremony, wrote Andrew Higgins in The Guardian, “was conducted in English and Mandarin, languages that most people of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong do not understand—a blunt reminder that, unlike previous acts of imperial retreat, the start of Chinese rule thrusts 6.4 million people into the embrace of a new master sometimes as alien as the departing power.”

More than 100,000 people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to watch the ceremony on giant screens. People in Hong Kong also celebrated, “not necessarily over the departure of the British or the arrival of the new masters from Beijing, but for experience of witnessing a big moment in history,” wrote Edward A. Gargan in The New York Times.

There was also some nervousness of what would happen under Chinese rule. “Hong Kong's elected legislature was abolished, and a Beijing-appointed body of lawmakers took its place,” wrote Gargan. “A range of Hong Kong's civil liberties were rolled back as new constraints were placed on the right to protest and association.”

The Hong Kong legislature held a 23-hour legislative session on the final day of its existence. Legislator Huang Chen-ya said afterward, “After leaving colonial rule, we are going to enjoy even less democracy and freedom. We should rise. We should strive for freedom and democracy.”

At midnight, the British flag was lowered at the Government House and replaced with the Chinese flag. Jiang swore in Tung as Hong Kong’s new leader. At dawn, 4,000 Chinese soldiers crossed the border into Hong Kong, greeted with cheers as they drove through the streets.

Background: Hong Kong Under British Rule

The island of Hong Kong, located on the South China Sea, was ceded to Britain by China following its defeat in the First Opium War of 1939-42. Eighteen years later, in 1860, China handed over the neighboring Kowloon peninsula after the Second Opium War.

In 1898, in the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, Britain acquired the “New Territories,” made up of a section of mainland China north of Hong Kong and Kowloon as well as over 200 small outlying islands. The agreement called for Britain to receive a 99-year, rent-free lease on the area.

Britain ruled the three regions, collectively referred to as Hong Kong, as a crown colony for the next 99 years except for a four-year period during World War II when it was occupied by Japan.

Under British rule, Hong Kong grew into a hub for trade between China and the West, and developed a strong banking system. In the 1950s, following the communist takeover of China, waves of migrants and businesses moved to Hong Kong, spurring dramatic industrial growth.

“From a relatively unpopulated territory at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hong Kong grew to become one of the most important international financial centers in the world,” writes Catherine R. Schenk, professor of international economic history at the University of Glasgow.

In the early 1980s, Britain and China began to discuss the impending end of the lease on the New Territories, which account for more than 85 percent of the area of Hong Kong. Though Britain would still control the island of Hong Kong and Kowloon, it was impractical to retain these areas without the New Territories. “[T]here was no physical border between these ceded portions and the New Territories, and no way in which Britain could defend or sustain the ceded portions if China wanted to take them back together with the New Territories,” explained Robert Cottrell, author of “The End of Hong Kong.”

In negotiations with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping insisted on recovering sovereignty over all of Hong Kong, and threatened that China would take unilateral action if a deal was not reached. In the 1984, the two sides agreed on a deal that Hong Kong would be returned to China under the policy of  “one country, two systems.” Under the agreement, China promised to keep Hong Kong’s free market economy in place for 50 years and also allow it to retain its own legal system.

Hong Kong continues to operate under the “one country, two systems” policy, as does Macau, the former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999. “Hong Kong's constitution, the Basic Law, provides for the development of democratic processes,” explains the BBC. “However, Beijing can veto changes to the political system and pro-democracy forces have been frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of political reform. China controls Hong Kong's foreign and defence policies, but the territory has its own currency and customs status.”

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines