When China ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1841 — and how its impact is felt till date


Hong Kong was ceded to the British by the Chinese on January 20, 1841. This development has shaped Hong Kong’s history over the following 183 years — and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

How? To answer this, we take a look at a brief history of Hong Kong.


The British get Hong Kong

European powers began trading with China in the 16th century. Their favourite commodity? Tea — a beverage the British would soon become addicted to. While the British loved Chinese tea, they did not have anything to trade with China in return. Thus, Britain’s favourite beverage soon became a drain on its bullion reserves.

By the late 18th century, the British came up with a solution — opium. They began flooding China with the drug produced in the East India Company’s possessions on the Gangetic plain. Britain’s trade imbalance was thus fixed, but at the cost of eating away the very fabric of Chinese society.

Even as the malaise of addiction spread in China, the ruling Qing dynasty was unable to stop the flow of opium. Things came to a head in 1839, after the Emperor found his own son dazed under the influence of opium. A vicious crackdown was ordered, and soon began the First Opium War.

Festive offer

The British, who claimed to be “protecting free trade”, humiliated the weak Qing armies in a series of defeats. In 1841, the Qing were forced to sign the Treaty of Chuenpi, officially ceding the island of Hong Kong to the British (it was already a base for British merchants since the early 1820s). A year later, the British would end hostilities after signing the Treaty of Nanking, which gave them increased access to Chinese ports and an effective-free hand to sell opium. China’s “century of humiliation” had just begun.

Hong Kong becomes a thriving port city

In 1841, Hong Kong was home to only a few thousand people, mostly from fishing communities. But the British soon realised its commercial and strategic value — Hong Kong boasted of a deep, fairly sheltered harbour, possessing east and west entrances, and lying on the main trade routes of the region. As British commercial activity in the Far East increased with help of the concessions received in the Treaty of Nanking, so did Hong Kong’s importance.

The island would soon attract all kinds of people from the mainland, from those seeking economic opportunities, to those escaping conflict. By 1860, the island’s population was touching 1.2 lakhs. That year, the British signed the Treaty of Peking, ending the Second Opium War. The defeated Chinese were forced to hand over more territory, including the Kowloon Peninsula and the Stonecutter’s Island to the victors.

Finally, in 1898, the British negotiated a lease of the “New Territories”, in which they would receive control of Hong Kong and a total of 235 islands for a period of 99 years. By this time, Hong Kong’s population had touched 3 lakhs. At the turn of the 20th century, Hong Kong was one of the most important port cities in the world.

British hand Hong Kong back

After being occupied by the Japanese from 1941-45, the island fell back into the hands of the British. Now despite a wave of decolonisation that would soon spell the end of the British Empire, the British had no intention of leaving Hong Kong, especially after the Communist takeover in China under Mao.

For Mao and the Communists, this was an enduring symbol of the ‘century of humiliation’ faced by China in the hands of Europeans. Nonetheless, fearing a larger conflict with the West, Mao desisted from sending in an invading party into the island, and chose instead to wait it out. The Communist supported labour movements and strikes inside the city in the 1950s and ’60s.

China, however, would institute economic reforms in 1977, fundamentally altering its relationship with the West. In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by British PM Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping — it was agreed that the British would hand over all its territories in and around Hong Kong in 1997, and govern using Deng’s principle of ‘one country, two systems’.

But, the people of Hong Kong were not all pleased

However, the people of Hong Kong, many of whom had grown accustomed to western political freedoms and economic ways, were not all happy. In the years preceding the handover, a record number of Hong Kong residents, especially the most affluent classes, emigrated abroad, while many who stayed back continued to oppose reunification.

China’s actions post the handover have not assuaged fears. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, Hong Kong saw wave after wave of protests, with residents fighting to preserve the promised autonomy. They complain that Beijing, bit by bit, continues to chip away at the ‘one country, two systems’ concept, which promised them significant autonomy within the Chinese state.

Protests heated up in 2019 and 2020, as Beijing introduced new laws which would allow mainland security agencies to operate in Hong Kong, allow for extradition of citizens from the island to the mainland, and increase its police powers over the island.

For an increasingly assertive Chinese state, the goal of ‘one country’ takes precedence over the promise of ‘two systems’. For many in Hong Kong, however, there is little to gain from this.





This article was originally published by a indianexpress.com . Read the Original article here. .