British Hong Kong denotes the period during which Hong Kong was governed as a colony and British Dependent Territory of the United Kingdom. Excluding the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, Hong Kong was under British rule from 1841 to 1997. The colonial period began with the occupation of Hong Kong Island in 1841 during the First Opium War. The island was ceded by Qing China in the aftermath of the war in 1842 and established as a Crown colony in 1843. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. Although Hong Kong Island and Kowloon were ceded in perpetuity, the leased area, which comprised over 90 per cent of the territory, had such a vital role in the economy that Britain agreed to transfer the entire colony to China upon the expiration of that lease in 1997. The transfer has been considered by many as marking the end of the British Empire.
In 1836, the Manchu Qing government undertook a major policy review of the opium trade. Lin Zexu volunteered to take on the task of suppressing opium. In March 1839, he became Special Imperial Commissioner in Canton, where he ordered the foreign traders to surrender their opium stock. He confined the British to the Canton Factories and cut off their supplies. Chief Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliot, complied with Lin's demands to secure a safe exit for the British, with the costs involved to be resolved between the two governments. When Elliot promised that the British government would pay for their opium stock, the merchants surrendered their 20,283 chests of opium, which were destroyed in public.
In September 1839, the British Cabinet decided that the Chinese should be made to pay for the destruction of British property, either by the threat or use of force. An expeditionary force was placed under Elliot and his cousin, Rear-Admiral George Elliot, as joint plenipotentiaries in 1840. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston stressed to the Chinese government that the British government did not question China's right to prohibit opium, but it objected to the way this was handled. He viewed the sudden strict enforcement as laying a trap for the foreign traders, and the confinement of the British with supplies cut off was tantamount to starving them into submission or death. He instructed the Elliot cousins to occupy one of the Chusan islands, to present a letter from himself to a Chinese official for the Emperor, then to proceed to the Gulf of Bohai for a treaty, and if the Chinese resisted, blockade the key ports of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. Palmerston demanded a territorial base in Chusan for trade so that British merchants "may not be subject to the arbitrary caprice either of the Government of Peking, or its local Authorities at the Sea-Ports of the Empire".
In 1841, Elliot negotiated with Lin's successor, Qishan, in the Convention of Chuenpi during the First Opium War. On 20 January, Elliot announced "the conclusion of preliminary arrangements", which included the cession of Hong Kong Island and its harbour to the British Crown. Elliot chose Hong Kong instead of Chusan because he believed a settlement further east would cause an "indefinite protraction of hostilities", whereas Hong Kong's harbour was a valuable base for the British trading community in Canton. British rule began with the occupation of the island on 26 January. Commodore Gordon Bremer, commander-in-chief of British forces in China, took formal possession of the island at Possession Point, where the Union Jack was raised under a feu de joie from the marines and a royal salute from the warships. Hong Kong was ceded in the Treaty of Nanking on 29 August 1842 and established as a Crown colony after ratification was exchanged on 26 June 1843.
The treaty failed to satisfy British expectations of a major expansion of trade and profit, which led to increasing pressure for a revision of the terms. In October 1856, Chinese authorities in Canton detained the Arrow, a Chinese-owned ship registered in Hong Kong to enjoy protection of the British flag. The Consul in Canton, Harry Parkes, claimed the hauling down of the flag and arrest of the crew were "an insult of very grave character". Parkes and Sir John Bowring, the 4th Governor of Hong Kong, seized the incident to pursue a forward policy. In March 1857, Palmerston appointed Lord Elgin as Plenipotentiary with the aim of securing a new and satisfactory treaty. A French expeditionary force joined the British to avenge the execution of a French missionary in 1856. In 1860, the capture of the Taku Forts and occupation of Beijing led to the Treaty of Tientsin and Convention of Peking. In the Treaty of Tientsin, the Chinese accepted British demands to open more ports, navigate the Yangtze River, legalise the opium trade and have diplomatic representation in Beijing. During the conflict, the British occupied the Kowloon Peninsula, where the flat land was valuable training and resting ground. The area in what is now south of Boundary Street and Stonecutters Island was ceded in the Convention of Peking.
In 1898, the British sought to extend Hong Kong for defence. After negotiations began in April 1898, with the British Minister in Beijing, Sir Claude MacDonald, representing Britain, and diplomat Li Hongzhang leading the Chinese, the Second Convention of Peking was signed on 9 June. Since the foreign powers had agreed by the late 19th century that it was no longer permissible to acquire outright sovereignty over any parcel of Chinese territory, and in keeping with the other territorial cessions China made to Russia, Germany and France that same year, the extension of Hong Kong took the form of a 99-year lease. The lease consisted of the rest of Kowloon south of the Shenzhen River and 230 islands, which became known as the New Territories. The British formally took possession on 16 April 1899.
In 1941, during the Second World War, the British reached an agreement with the Chinese government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek that if Japan attacked Hong Kong, the Chinese National Army would attack the Japanese from the rear to relieve pressure on the British garrison. On 8 December, the Battle of Hong Kong began when Japanese air bombers effectively destroyed British air power in one attack. Two days later, the Japanese breached the Gin Drinkers Line in the New Territories. The British commander, Major-General Christopher Maltby, concluded that the island could not be defended for long unless he withdrew his brigade from the mainland. On 18 December, the Japanese crossed Victoria Harbour. By 25 December, organised defence was reduced into pockets of resistance. Maltby recommended a surrender to Governor Sir Mark Young, who accepted his advice to reduce further losses. A day after the invasion, Chiang ordered three corps under General Yu Hanmou to march towards Hong Kong. The plan was to launch a New Year's Day attack on the Japanese in the Canton region, but before the Chinese infantry could attack, the Japanese had broken Hong Kong's defences. The British casualties were 2,232 killed or missing and 2,300 wounded. The Japanese reported 1,996 killed and 6,000 wounded.
The Japanese soldiers committed atrocities, including rape, on many locals. The population fell in half, from 1.6 million in 1941 to 750,000 at war's end because of fleeing refugees; they returned in 1945.
The Japanese imprisoned the ruling British colonial élite and sought to win over the local merchant gentry by appointments to advisory councils and neighbourhood watch groups. The policy worked well for Japan and produced extensive collaboration from both the élite and the middle class, with far less terror than in other Chinese cities. Hong Kong was transformed into a Japanese colony, with Japanese businesses replacing the British. However, the Japanese Empire had severe logistical difficulties and by 1943 the food supply for Hong Kong was problematic. The overlords became more brutal and corrupt, and the Chinese gentry became disenchanted. With the surrender of Japan, the transition back to British rule was smooth, for on the mainland the Nationalist and Communist forces were preparing for a civil war and ignored Hong Kong. In the long run the occupation strengthened the pre-war social and economic order among the Chinese business community by eliminating some conflicts of interests and reducing the prestige and power of the British.
On 14 August 1945, when Japan announced its unconditional surrender, the British formed a naval task group to sail towards Hong Kong. On 1 September, Rear-Admiral Cecil Harcourt proclaimed a military administration with himself as its head. He formally accepted the Japanese surrender on 16 September in Government House. Young, upon his return as governor in May 1946, pursued political reform known as the "Young Plan", believing that, to counter the Chinese government's determination to recover Hong Kong, it was necessary to give local inhabitants a greater stake in the territory by widening the political franchise to include them.
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The Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Premier of the People's Republic of China on 19 December 1984 in Beijing. The Declaration entered into force with the exchange of instruments of ratification on 27 May 1985 and was registered by the People's Republic of China and United Kingdom governments at the United Nations on 12 June 1985. In the Joint Declaration, the People's Republic of China Government stated that it had decided to resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong (including Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories) with effect from 1 July 1997 and the United Kingdom Government declared that it would relinquish Hong Kong to the PRC with effect from 1 July 1997. In the document, the People's Republic of China Government also declared its basic policies regarding Hong Kong.
In accordance with the One Country, Two Systems principle agreed between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China, the socialist system of People's Republic of China would not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and Hong Kong's previous capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years. The Joint Declaration provides that these basic policies shall be stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law. The ceremony of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration took place at 18:00, 19 December 1984 at the Western Main Chamber of the Great Hall of the People. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office at first proposed a list of 60-80 Hong Kong people to attend the ceremony. The number was finally extended to 101. The list included Hong Kong government officials, members of the Legislative and Executive Councils, chairmen of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Standard Chartered Bank, Hong Kong celebrities such as Li Ka-shing, Pao Yue-kong and Fok Ying-tung, and also Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah.
The handover ceremony was held at the new wing of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on the night of 30 June 1997. The principal British guest was Charles, Prince of Wales who read a farewell speech on behalf of the Queen. The newly appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, the British Foreign Minister, Robin Cook, the departing Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten, Chief of the Defence Staff, Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom also attended.
Representing China were the President of the People's Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, Premier of the People's Republic of China, Li Peng, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. This event was broadcast on television and radio stations across the world.
Hong Kong was a Crown colony of the United Kingdom and maintained an administration roughly modelled after the Westminster system. The Letters Patent formed the constitutional basis of the colonial government and the Royal Instructions detailed how the territory should be governed and organised.
The Governor was the head of government and appointed by the British monarch to serve as the representative of the Crown in the colony. Executive power was highly concentrated with the Governor, who himself appointed almost all members of the Legislative Council and Executive Council and also served as President of both chambers. The British government provided oversight for the colonial government; the Foreign Secretary formally approved any additions to the Legislative and Executive Councils and the Sovereign held sole authority to amend the Letters Patent and Royal Instructions.
The Executive Council determined administrative policy changes and considered primary legislation before passing it to the Legislative Council for approval. This advisory body also itself issued secondary legislation under a limited set of colonial ordinances. The Legislative Council debated proposed legislation and was responsible for the appropriation of public funds. This chamber was reformed in the last years of colonial rule to introduce more democratic representation. Indirectly elected functional constituency seats were introduced in 1985 and popularly elected geographical constituency seats in 1991. Further electoral reform in 1994 effectively made the legislature broadly representative. The administrative Civil Service was led by the Colonial Secretary (later Chief Secretary), who was deputy to the Governor.
The judicial system was based on English law, with Chinese customary law taking a secondary role in civil cases involving Chinese residents. The Supreme Court was the highest court and ruled on all civil and criminal cases in the colony. During the early colonial period, extraterritorial appellate cases from other regions of China involving British subjects were also tried in this court. Further appeals from the Supreme Court were heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which exercised final adjudication over the entire British Empire.
In 1861, Governor Sir Hercules Robinson introduced the Hong Kong Cadetship, which recruited young graduates from Britain to learn Cantonese and written Chinese for two years, before deploying them on a fast track to the Civil Service. Cadet officers gradually formed the backbone of the civil administration. After the Second World War, ethnic Chinese were allowed into the service, followed by women. Cadets were renamed Administrative Officers in the 1950s, and they remained the elite of the Civil Service during British rule.
The stability, security, and predictability of British law and government enabled Hong Kong to flourish as a centre for international trade. In the colony's first decade, the revenue from the opium trade was a key source of government funds. The importance of opium reduced over time, but the colonial government was dependent on its revenues until the Japanese occupation in 1941. Although the largest businesses in the early colony were operated by British, American, and other expatriates, Chinese workers provided the bulk of the manpower to build a new port city.
By the late 1980s, many ethnic Chinese people had become major business figures in Hong Kong. Amongst these billionaires was Sir Ka-shing Li, who had become one of the colony's wealthiest people by this time.
During China's turbulent period in the 20th century, Hong Kong served as a safe haven for dissidents, political refugees, and officials who lost power. British policy allowed dissidents to live in Hong Kong as long as they did not break local laws or harm British interests. The implementation of this policy varied according to what the senior officials thought constituted British interests and the state of relations with China. The Canton-Hong Kong strike (1925-1926) was anti-imperialist in nature. The 1966 riots and Maoist-led 1967 riots, essentially spillovers from the Cultural Revolution, were large scale demonstrations fuelled by tensions surrounding labour disputes and dissatisfaction towards the government. Although the 1967 riots started as a labour dispute, the incident escalated quickly after the leftist camp and mainland officials stationed in Hong Kong seized the opportunity to mobilise their followers to protest against the colonial government. Chinese Communist members organised the Anti-British Struggle Committee during the riots.
Historian Steve Tsang wrote that it was "ironic" that despite Hong Kong being a symbol of China's humiliation by Britain, there was not one major movement started by the Chinese residents of the colony for its retrocession to China, even though there had been several upsurges of Chinese nationalism. He explained:
In the 1920s, the working class Chinese of Hong Kong did not have a good reason to rally around the Hong Kong government, and they were more susceptible to appeals based on Chinese nationalism. Consequently, the call of the Communists was basically heeded by the working men, and their actions practically paralysed the colony for a year. By the [end of the] 1960s, however, the attempts by the Hong Kong government to maintain stability and good order which helped improve everyone's living conditions, and ... the beginning of the emergence of a Hong Kong identity, changed the attitude of the local Chinese. They overwhelmingly rallied around the colonial British regime.