Embracing decolonization

By Daniele Pestilli on December 17, 2010

Ending the First Opium War in 1842, the Qing Dynasty's government ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British crown in perpetuity. In this agreement ratified by Queen Victoria and Emperor Daoguang, no mention was made of a return to Chinese sovereignty. Nevertheless, the transfer occurred. Paradoxically, Hong Kong's return to China was largely a result of Britain's acquisition of the New Territories in 1898, when a ninety-nine year lease was signed. The lease ended on July 1st, 1997. This date marked a historical moment that ended Western imperialism in Asia; at the same time, it created new difficulties in the minds of those who could not see Hong Kong co-exist with mainland China.

The First Opium War came to an end under the Treaty of Nanking in August 1842. Britain's terms for the Treaty were stern: “the cession of Hong Kong, [...] the opening of five ports to foreign trade – Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai, as well as Canton” and a compensation of $21 million. In England, this news was not received with much enthusiasm: in the early 1840s Hong Kong was a hardly inhabited fisherman's island, merely populated by some Chinese mainland family lines that had moved there some thousand years before. “So insignificant [was Hong Kong] in Chinese eyes that it was not even marked on the Coastal Defense Map produced in 1819 for the local County Gazetteer.” The cession of Hong Kong was soon followed by that of the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860. Then, in 1898 the British minister to Beijing Sir Claude MacDonald signed a ninety-nine year lease which temporarily made the New Territories fall under British control. After this date, which was set to expire in June 1997, there was to be a peaceful transfer of sovereignty back to China. Nevertheless, Hong Kong was to remain English land without restraint despite the New Territories' lease. The terms of this convention were problematic and often vague: the clause that aroused most opposition due to its ambiguous implication of dual rule was the Walled City clause, followed by “two clauses referring to Chinese shipping and proposals for a railway [as well as] clauses dealing with extradition and Chinese war ships.” China protested the 1898 treaty as being unequal numerous times on the grounds that only Britain derived any benefit from it and because “the contracting parties were not in a position of equal bargaining power when the Convention was drawn up.” Chinese concerns over the Unequal Treaty were also brought up on an international level to the United Nations in 1972. Although this issue was scrutinized, the unequal terms under which the treaty was signed did not signify that the document was not valid.

Clearly, any treaty between countries is unequal if one of the two parties loses part of its sovereignty and does not have the means to veto at the time of its signing. However, there were two major complications with the 1898 treaty: the first was its confusing terminology and the second was its stipulated method of transference of power. At the end of the ninety-nine year term, the New Territories would have to be returned to China, but this implied Britain's lack of full sovereignty from the start. Thus there was no true alienation of Chinese territory; “the phrase is a contradiction in terms and the category it supposes cannot exist in international law.” Furthermore, as aforementioned, the wording of the treaty was ambiguous in that it implied that China was to remain suzerain throughout the ninety-nine years: not only did Chinese residents remain Chinese subjects but decisions about the newly leased territory, it said, would have to be made by the governments of both Britain and China.

The reasons for Hong Kong's return to China were, therefore, quite different from those of the New Territories. Probably the most influential event that led to its return was that Hong Kong proved to be peripheral to Britain's foreign policy when in 1941 the island was essentially ceded to Japanese forces with little opposition. This, along with the Korean War of 1950 renewed political uncertainty in Hong Kong, making English control over the colony questionable. Second, by the early 1980s, the British feared that interest in Hong Kong would cease in England due to the unpredictability of the handover's outcome, which they though would make investors lose considerable amounts of money. The series of talks held between the British Prime Minister, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s was a result of both China's and Britain's common interest in maintaining Hong Kong's stability and prosperity. Britain's decision to handover was informed by the Hong Kong government, which expected that “over half of the total population and a large portion of the industrial plants [would] be in the New Territories by 1997.” Aside from being economically unprofitable, keeping Hong Kong would have also proved to be a political mistake: one of the important aims of the Chinese Communist revolution during the 1940s was to terminate all unequal treaties, so governing the island would have further deteriorated Sino-British relations. As a result, Britain signed a Joint Declaration with China in 1984 that set Hong Kong's return to the mainland for July 1st, 1997. The first paragraph of the Declaration clearly stated China's intention to re-possess Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories in the interest of the entire Chinese people. No reference of British power or rule over these lands was made.

China's signing of the Joint Declaration meant that it agreed to allow human rights, retain customs and incorporate a system that was so different from its own within mainland Chinese territory. It was followed by the promulgation of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) on April 4th, 1990. This document was important in determining Hong Kong's model of governance from 1997 to 2047, the year in which Hong Kong will formally come under the Beijing government's control forming a single political entity. It promised to concede the HKSAR a “high degree of autonomy,” stipulating that the mainland would intervene only in regards to the island's foreign policy and defense. Otherwise, all prior British policies would be maintained such as freedom of speech, press, and perhaps more importantly, its own currency and taxes. In other words it would become “one country, two systems,” a slogan that was directed to Taiwan and Macao as well. Examples of this type of sovereignty were hardly ideal from what had been seen in the past, as can be observed in Germany's or Korea's case. These startling decisions were in part a result of Deng Xiaoping's successful disposition of the 'Gang of Four' – Mao's widow Jiang Qing and her associates, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao and Wang Hongwen – which led to more reasonable economic decisions. One of these was Deng's Open Door policy of 1987 that enabled all nations to have equal trading rights in China. These actions greatly reassured investors in Hong Kong: in fact, the new reforms coincided with a dramatically increased entrepot activity within Asia.

The leaders of Britain and China were happy about the entente that had been reached. Nevertheless, the people of Hong Kong saw nothing to rejoice about; many had fled the mainland to escape that very system which was now threatening to engulf them once again. “The number of emigrants from Hong Kong went steadily up from 20,000 a year at the time of the signing of the Declaration to 30,000 a year by 1987, and to over 60,000 a year from 1990 onwards (a steep rise surely not unconnected with the sickening events in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989.” This was a clear loss for Hong Kong since it was these very people's labor that made the economy and businesses run so prosperously. Britain was also preparing for the worst as it started taking its own precautions, which were especially unpopular in Hong Kong. In particular, the British Nationality Act which came in force in 1983 showed how much the English wanted to safeguard their interests. It shut its doors to the residents of the island by exploiting a loophole that devalued the colony's passport preventing Hong Kongers from entering or working in England. “Should negotiations with China fail and conditions in Hong Kong become intolerable, at least Britain would not be plagued by 3.3 million Chinese demanding to live there.” In 1992, Chris Patten became the last British governor of Hong Kong replacing Governor David Wilson, who had detailed much of the content of the Joint Declaration. The former aspired to democratize the island, something that enraged the leaders in Beijing. Also, the political atmosphere grew more tense when in 1993, China started to plan a post-British government. To many, this was a significant forewarning that Beijing would have interfered with Hong Kong's politics more than they had promised.

Hong Kong's future was uncertain. Gangren zigang, or the notion of “the Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” was probably the more popular desire amongst the politically active inhabitants of the colony. Nevertheless, if this had indeed occurred, the appointees would have been “nationalists” chosen by the Communist Party. If the situation were to become too unstable, businessmen would inevitably have left Hong Kong and invested elsewhere, something that China did not want to risk. The transition needed to be as smooth as possible in order for the economic status quo to continue unaffected; Hong Kong's prosperity was something that China was not willing to mar. Although there was fear that many would leave Hong Kong, resulting in a dramatic loss of labor and capital, emigration did not outdo immigration. The Japanese occupation during World War II had greatly reduced Hong Kong's population, but after the establishment of British sovereignty, the island's population quickly rose to one million by 1946 and reached almost two million by 1949. Then, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China, many inhabitants fled to neighboring territories as refugees, in particular during the great famine of 1959-1961. This was followed by another wave in the late 1970s. In general, “except for a few years in the mid-1960s, the net balance of movement into and out of Hong Kong was generally positive, that is, more people entered Hong Kong than left.” The most popular emigration destinations were the U.S., Canada and Australia: from the 15,500 admitted to the United States in the 1950s, more than 75,000 entered in the 1960s. In Canada, from a few thousand admitted per year, 50,000 immigrated in the 1970s. It is interesting to notice the shift in trends of the two major waves of Hong Kong emigrants: whereas those who left the island after World War II primarily consisted of poorly educated rural people with limited labor skills, the ones who emigrated in later periods were educated and highly trained.

This created concern that the island would lose much of its manpower even prior to the '97 handover. The upsurge of emigration in 1987, ironically the same year as Deng's Open Door policy, demonstrated the uncertainty surrounding Hong Kong's future stability. Or so it seemed. The years leading to 1997 resulted in an upsurge of returning emigrants. The reason for this is unclear, but “it is not improbable that one-fifth of the more than 300,000 who are said to have left Hong Kong between 1987 and 1992 might have returned, or some 60,000 people.” Not included in this estimate are those who returned to Hong Kong with foreign passports. Thus there was not so much of a “brain drain” as was initially feared. What is more, these migration flows might have actually benefited Hong Kong as overseas training brought new talent. This phenomenon also occurred in South Korea and Taiwan during the '70s: the return of migrants who studied abroad helped the two countries develop “more rapidly than they [had] done over the past decades.” Some scholars argue that emigration, in fact, does not hamper progress - rather, it hastens development. In an article published in 1984 by Joseph Cheng, results from five polls carried out between 1982 and 1983 indicate the preferences of the residents of Hong Kong regarding migration and politics. This article, written after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit to Beijing, was a response to the general feeling of uncertainty of a future over which they had no control. Cheng articulates that owing to this uncertainty and impotence, most Hong Kongers were uninterested in political affairs and, what is more, due to the 1983 British Nationality Act, they could not develop a sense of belonging to a community with shared public responsibilities. He explains that besides the Urban Council and District Board elections, residents had no political voice that would represent and safeguard their interests throughout any of the Sino-British negotiations. As a result, the best way to express their attitudes was through these polls. The first was a telephone survey conducted in 1982. A total of 998 people were interviewed with questions concerning

  1. The level of knowledge regarding the New Territories lease
  2. The perceived outcome and preferred outcome of the future of Hong Kong after 1997
  3. Attitudes towards and preferences between living in Hong Kong and China

A total of 68% of the interviewed people knew about the lease; the knowledge was generally higher among men and those with a higher income. Regarding the perceived and preferred outcome of post-1997 Hong Kong, 76% thought that either the status quo would be maintained or that Hong Kong would come under British administration; 85% preferred these two options to a return to China's administration. Interestingly, results indicated that if China's government took control over Hong Kong, only 32% expressed a desire to emigrate. When asked whether they preferred living in Hong Kong or China, 86% of the respondents expressed preference for the former, mostly because of the freer, more accommodating lifestyle as opposed to the more oppressive mainland. In other words, the results of this first poll suggested optimism for a maintained status quo. The second poll sampled one thousand people: 71 questions were asked and the poll was said to represent most of Hong Kong's population with an accuracy of 95%. Among the more interesting questions were how many valued freedom of speech (83%) and how many did not have long-term goals due to the handover's unpredictability (62%). When asked if they had taken precautionary measures for 1997, 97% said they had not. This survey, like the first, expressed the people's desire to maintain Hong Kong's status quo but showed their feeling of powerlessness to rectify this in any way.

The third poll, sent to 2,906 companies, was evidence that most people wanted to know Beijing's decision concerning the future of Hong Kong before the end of 1982 for long-term managerial reassurance. In particular, the companies wanted to remove uncertainty over the political situation in Hong Kong by either preserving the status quo, by having China rule Hong Kong (leaving the political system untouched) or by allowing Britain to continue its governance. In the fourth survey, a group of pro-China students led a telephonic interview focusing on the proposal of self-administration. In general, the majority (the younger and wealthier interviewees) showed a desire to follow the slogan of the Hong Kong people leading Hong Kong. This poll had been conducted shortly after Mrs. Thatcher's visit to Beijing and thus expresses a different trend than previous polls: “the Hong Kong people felt they could neither support nor accept the British position that the unequal treaties concluded between the British Empire and the Manchu dynasty were still valid and that the sovereignty of Hong Kong belonged to Britain.” As a result, they tended to accept China's offer of self-administration. The final survey was conducted in April 1983, and interviewed 1,128 respondents. This poll reinforced the last one's results: namely, that respondents seemed to prefer self-administration after Mrs. Thatcher's visit. The general attitude of this survey showed a great amount of confusion and helplessness.

In an article written in 1995 by K. Hsin-chi and L. Siu-kai, the dilemma of Hong Kong's political system post-1997 and the feeling of powerlessness amongst Hong Kong's residents is again brought up, this time focusing on a different period. He argues that due to Hong Kong's historically inferior power vis-à-vis China and Britain, not only was there a general attitude of political apathy, but a revolutionary movement that would lead to a democratic process was also out of the question. This is attributed to the fact that Britain's governmental policy during its colonial rule was to undertake partial reforms without substantially modifying the larger system, which led to “a limited understanding of and aspirations for democracy among the people of Hong Kong.” After the Basic Law was promulgated in 1990 by the Chinese, who had inherited the partial reform strategy from the British to ensure a smooth transition of sovereignty, a system of direct and indirect election was enforced wherein 10 out of the 60 members of the Legislative Council (LegCo) were to be appointed by China's government. In 1994, Chris Patten's policy was promulgated whereby Hong Kong adopted a single-seat single-vote system and changed the “voting by groups for functional constituencies into a popular vote.” Nevertheless, the authors argue, there was still a very weak democratic movement which had not spurred a strong desire within the people to democratize. However, they claim, this was gradually changing.

In a survey conducted in 1992, 868 respondents were asked about their thoughts on Hong Kong's political aspirations. Results showed that 59.8% of Hong Kong's residents wanted more democracy and more directly elected seats to the LegCo. This contrasts the findings of the previous set of polls that generally showed a desire to maintain the status quo. However, quite interestingly, the authors make the distinction between “preference for further democratization” and “political participation”. Half of the interviewees were interested in the latter question, while the other half were uninterested. For the most part, the wealthier expressed the least amount of enthusiasm in a more democratic process, as their representation in the LegCo clearly secured their interests, whereas Hong Kong's lower-income working class was aware that further strides towards a democratic process would better represent their interests.

The overarching point is that although people showed an interest democracy, there was no clear understanding of what this truly meant. The results of one question in the survey best elucidate this trend:

It is said that only a few specially able people in society are qualified to rule, and all others ought to be led by those elites. Do you agree with this statement?

The majority of respondents agreed. In other words, there was more support for a functional undemocratic government rather than an inefficient democratic one: “the people of Hong Kong conceive of democracy not in terms of forming a government on the basis of elections but of making the government more consultative, more efficient, and more controllable.” Perhaps this was due to a dual feeling of comfort with the familiar political system and a fear of having to emigrate to somewhere unknown had the political scene changed drastically.

To say that Hong Kong's citizens are politically apathetic, as was mentioned by Hsin-chi and Siu-kai, would be to propagate a myth. The lack of agency in politics does not necessarily imply apathy towards it. In an article published in 1996, M. Degolyer and J. Lee Scott articulated the need to demystify this claim: proof of the inaccuracy of such a statement can be seen by the fact that in 1989, a million Hong Kongese marched through the streets of the island in protest of the Tiananmen Square incident. Furthermore, if a comparison is drawn between the development of political awareness in Eastern Europe with that of Hong Kong, the latter clearly “has developed far faster and maintains higher interest in politics.” The people of Hong Kong have found themselves in a defenseless state of contention between all Sino-British relations. As the results of the aforementioned polls show, there was a significant knowledge of political events: when people became aware of China's perspective on the Unequal Treaty of 1898, the majority no longer desired an extension of British rule but rather they opted to follow the slogan gangren zigang. We must also consider that many of those who fled China in the '50s were in search of a better life, which they found in Hong Kong; although they may have been aware of politics and political changes, perhaps it was not in their intentions to intervene in the governance of a society that had so warmly welcomed them.

Furthermore, there were other ways of being heard politically: “if bribery is a form of voting – the exercise of influence on government officials – with money, and emigration is voting with the feet, then Hong Kong people have been expressing their views and influencing government for many years.” Emigration is a sign that Hong Kongers did not feel uninformed about political events. Moreover, for such a small population there was certainly a large number of daily newspapers (more than 20 in Chinese and 5 in English), and news broadcasts by radio and television indicate that political coverage was not lacking. In the years between 1981 and 1995, the number of voters increased from 34,000 to 3.7 million; the number of parties went from none to 10; the number of votes cast during the 1995 LegCo election increased by 75% over that of 1991.

On the economic front, things were also looking very bright for Hong Kong. Serving as a hub for trading networks throughout the globe, the island incremented in productivity of imports, exports and re-exports in the years preceding 1997. Whereas Western Europe and North America purchased 60% to 75% of Hong Kong's domestic goods from the '60s to the '80s, Asia's share declined from about 20% to 10% until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping introduced his Open Door policy. After this time, Asia bought most of Hong Kong's domestic exports leaving around 45% to North America and Western Europe combined. The latter supplied one-third of Hong Kong's imports, but the majority of business stayed in Asia from which the island derived a relatively stable supply of 75% of its goods. There was also a steep and fairly regular increase in the number of foreign banks in Hong Kong from 1955 to 1995, which also coincided with Deng's reforms. However, Hong Kong had the disadvantage of its looming return to China in 1997, which cast uncertainty as to whether it could continue to be a secure financial center. The outcome of this uncertainty was opposite to what had been predicted: because of surging financial business in Hong Kong, foreign banks multiplied, which had the unexpected effect of securing the region financially. In other words, “from the Joint Declaration of 1984 to 1997, while political and economic uncertainty swirled, the financial, trade, regional corporate management, and producer services sectors of Hong Kong rose to unprecedented heights.”

The years leading to 1997 were not at all what they had been predicted to be. The skeptical talk that preceded the handover, such as the principle of “one country, two systems” that many viewed as absurd, was seamlessly dealt with by both Britain and China resulting in a fairly stable situation for the island. Instead of an increased state of panic, the years prior to 1997 resulted in progressively diminishing fears in the minds of Hong Kong's citizens. Where there was fear of economic devastation, there was prosperity; where there was fear of emigration, a large number of people flocked back into the island repopulating it; where there was an assumed political apathy, Hong Kongers proved to be very politically active in their own ways. The initial dilemma that the people of Hong Kong faced with the British transference of sovereignty to China evolved into a demonstration of Hong Kong's expanding vibrancy, as can be inferred from historical demographic and economic data. 1997 stimulated immense controversy, but the negative consequences did not ultimately outweigh the positive ones as was expected by many observers.


List of Sources

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  3. Degolyer, Michael E., and Janet Lee Scott. “The Myth of Political Apathy in Hong Kong.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 547 (1996): 68-78. JSTOR. 31 Mar. 2008
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