Hong Kong without the British crown

Twenty years ago Hong Kong returned to China’s jurisdiction.

On July 1, 1997, Britain officially placed Hong Kong under the jurisdiction of China. During its history, Hong Kong has experienced both glorious and dark times – the opium wars, the Japanese occupation, becoming one of the “Four Asian Tigers” and much more. On how a fishing village has become one of the three key financial centers of the world – in the article “Gazeta.Ru”.

When Hong Kong didn’t exist yet.

The place where Hong Kong is now one of the world’s three financial centers is an artificial enclave once created by the British in the South China province of Guangdong.

Since ancient times Guangdong has been inhabited by the Viets and Thais – archaeological data allow us to confirm that already in the early first millennium during the reign of the Eastern Han Dynasty the first settlements existed on the territory of the future Hong Kong.

The territory of modern Hong Kong has not always been part of China. The mouth of the Pearl River, where the city in the future would be located, came under Chinese control only in the XI century as part of the Southern Song Empire. Guangdong was conquered by the Mongols in the 13th century, and only then did Hong Kong begin life as part of a unified Chinese state.

This incorporation, however, changed nothing on the coast. Like centuries before, Guangdong was still an inconspicuous collection of fishing and farming villages, no different from the thousands of similarly situated villages across East Asia.

That all changed when Europeans began looking for ways to reach the riches of closed and mysterious imperial China. In 1537 the Portuguese received the exclusive permission from the Chinese emperor to base his warehouses in a small village, which would later become known to the world as Macau.

The example of the Portuguese was followed by the British, who in 1699 secured the right for the East India Company to build a trading post and warehouses in Guangzhou, a town near Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, it took the British almost another century and a half to finally establish themselves in China and a full-fledged colony there.

Rule the seas, Britain

The port of Guangzhou became a lively trading post for the British and Chinese over a hundred years, exporting Chinese silks and tea, which brought the British considerable profit, but more importantly, Guangzhou was the point of entry for Indian opium into China.

Opium became a stumbling block in Anglo-Chinese relations. On the one hand, China had a total ban on the trade and use of the drug, but on the other, opium was the only English commodity that was truly in demand in China. The British desire for profit led to the fact that in 1840 Britain went to war with the then Qing Dynasty over the right to sell opium in China.

During the First Opium War, in 1841, Britain seized Hong Kong Island, which became a British colony under the 1842 peace treaty.

Subsequently, Britain continued to expand its possessions in the region – in 1898, it received a lease for 99 years, the so-called “New Territories”, through which the territory of Hong Kong has increased almost tenfold.

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Under British rule, Hong Kong became a bastion of democracy and free thinking. The colony’s residents were officially considered subjects of the British Crown and enjoyed rights unimaginable to other Asian countries at the time.

The first half of the 20th century was no less difficult for China than it was for Russia. The national struggle against the Manchurian government of the Qing Empire, fighting foreign invaders, numerous rebellions throughout the country, the Xinghai Revolution, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria – all these events took many lives, thousands and thousands of refugees sought refuge and found it in Hong Kong, an island of stability in the sea of Chinese chaos of those times.

Among the thousands who flocked to Hong Kong in the early twentieth century was the “father of the Chinese nation” and leader of the Xinhai Revolution, Sun Yat-sen, a native of Guangdong who studied medicine in Hong Kong.

Sometimes conflicts in mainland China even played into the hands of the British colony – after the Japanese seized Nanjing and Shanghai in the late 1930s, capital began to flow from these cities to Hong Kong, which, according to the residents of the area themselves, laid the foundation for further economic growth.

The idyll could not last forever. In 1941, Japanese troops invaded the city; the occupation of Hong Kong lasted three years, during which some residents were relocated to China because of starvation.

And yet Hong Kong’s economic power didn’t falter in the end, thanks in no small part to mainland China. After 1960, when China severed relations with the USSR and the country effectively found itself in international isolation for decades, Hong Kong remained the only bridge linking Communist China to the outside world.

The Long Walk Home

The beginning of the Hong Kong we know today was in September 1984. At that time, British and Chinese authorities agreed to return the area to the PRC on July 1, 1997, when the lease on the New Territories expired. For the Hong Kong people themselves, whose opinion was not taken into account at all in the decision to cede the former British colony to the PRC, the 13 years of waiting since the 1984 agreement were a period of uncertainty and anxiety.

Recognition of Hong Kong as Chinese territory meant that the city lost its role as an intermediary between China and the rest of the world, its privileges as a major trading port and a major financial center.

On top of that, China refused to accept the results of the last British city assembly elections, in which 18 of the 20 seats were won by democratically minded figures.

The infamous events at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, after which Hong Kong residents began to leave the country en masse or try to obtain British passports, also added fuel to the fire. However, only a few months before the return of Hong Kong, Britain suddenly refused to accept its own subjects, and only the elites of the colony were able to obtain British documents. Britain “finished off” Hong Kong by recognizing the political arrangement approved by Beijing.

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When the treaty on the transfer of territory to the People’s Republic of China finally came into force, it became clear that no qualitative changes would take place. British flags were replaced by Chinese flags, the Scottish Guardsmen by troops of the People’s Liberation Army of China. But for the most part everything remains the same.

It is worth noting that Hong Kongers were at first happy about the “reunification” – after more than a decade of intense anticipation of “the worst”, the return to Chinese rule was not as painful as Hong Kongers had feared.

The peak of this relief and euphoria for Hong Kong residents was in October 1997, when the district hosted celebrations to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In fact, Hong Kong people had objective reasons to rejoice in the unification – China, contrary to all pessimistic expectations, did not touch the border with Hong Kong and left the customs and border control system and visa regime unchanged. In addition, Hong Kong citizens retained their passports, and all the same laws were in effect in the area.

20 years under one roof

The idyll did not last long – by the end of the year the economic crisis began in Hong Kong, and it became clear that the region could not overcome the problems that arose without help from China (which was not affected by the crisis). However, the financial intervention of China, which came to “help” the newly returned territory, turned out to be heavily dependent on Beijing – all the Hong Kong people’s optimism about life in the region “after reunification” faded. More recently, in 2014, Hong Kong experienced a political crisis that has not yet been resolved. No matter how much Beijing tried to keep Hong Kong’s political freedoms as they were, a conflict between two very different systems was inevitable. It is worth remembering that over the past 15 years, Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking has fallen from 18th to 70th.

Now, 20 years after Hong Kong’s reunification with China, their relationship is still marked by a considerable degree of mutual misunderstanding. They are two different peoples with completely different ways of life, language, and political views, although they are territorially adjacent to each other.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was established in 1997 for a period of 50 years. At the end of these fifty years – in 2047 – Hong Kong will become part of China and will be governed by the laws of the People’s Republic of China.

This week, Hong Kong is holding celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the return of the former British colony to China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on June 29 to participate in the festivities and will stay in the city until July 1. This visit by the Chinese leader was his first visit to Hong Kong since assuming the presidency of the PRC in 2012.

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At Hong Kong airport, Mr. Xi, who arrived with his wife, Peng Liyuan, was greeted by people waving red flags – PRC and Hong Kong flags – as well as senior officials from the Special Administrative Region, including Hong Kong Chief Executive Liang Zhenying.

After stepping off the plane, Mr. Xi made a short speech to those present, in which he expressed the Chinese government’s intention to continue “supporting the economic development of the city and the improvement of the welfare of its residents.”

Hong Kong without the British crown

Before you get to Hong Kong for the first time, it seems like a city of the future, a neon cloud over the ocean. When you finally get inside this picture, you realize that it is a retro city. Here, unlike anywhere else in the world, the new is respected, but the old is sincerely loved.

In Hong Kong, the concept of old European luxury is fixed at a genetic level, not worse than the Parisians or Londoners in the tenth generation. The barbershop is not a new-fangled imitation, but a real men’s club opened for already 100 years where barbers learned to use a dangerous razor from their senior colleagues. By the way, one of the most respected barbershops – the Mandarin Oriental Hotel – has been frequented by generations of Hong Kong businessmen, for whom it is a basic necessity rather than a tourist attraction.

Hong Kong Without a British Crown - Photo 2

Hong Kong without the British crown

The art of tailoring men’s suits has not been lost in Hong Kong, as only Italy and Savile Row can do. And the tables for the fife-o-clock are made according to the rules of English tea etiquette.

Yes, after the city was handed over to China, 85% of the permanent British residents – officials, representatives of British companies, English teachers – left here… But Hong Kong residents are so used to gentlemanly pleasures that they’re not going to give them up. City dwellers are proud of their Anglo-Chinese names and good English, but for them it is a symbol of cosmopolitanism, not of the fact that they are a product of “British management”. In short, Hong Kong is neither a branch of the West in the East nor a city with a colonial consciousness. It has simply taken the best of the East and the West and made it into the flavorful blend we know as Hong Kong. And yes, local tea shops here pour aromatic teguanyin into English china and serve it with dim sum.

100 Years of Colonial History

To understand whether Hong Kong has changed since reverted to China, you have to understand that Britain’s reign here originally had a peculiar character, and the treaties under which Britain ruled Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula and the New Territories are unparalleled in colonial history.

Hong Kong Without a British Crown - Photo 3

100 Years of Colonial History

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Today, looking at the respectable megalopolis, it’s somehow awkward to talk about it, but the history of modern Hong Kong began with … drug trafficking. In the 19th century, China felt little need to trade with the West. However, for the European countries, especially for the British Empire, China was a tidbit both as a source of goods and as a market. So from the 18th century onwards, the British pressed forward into China. They were only allowed to settle in factories (enclosed areas in port cities) and imposed strict restrictions on trade. The English bought tea from China, which brought in great profits. But it took a long time to establish trade in the opposite direction: woolen cloth, at that time the main product of British exports, was of no use in southern China.

Hong Kong Without British Crown - Photo 4

100 Years of Colonial History

Finally it turned out that there was a commodity the Chinese were interested in: opium. The British were importing it from colonial India. The trade in the forbidden commodity bypassed the official authorities – or rather, a well-functioning system of bribes to local officials had been set up. Of course, the emperor could not be satisfied with this. In 1839, the Chinese authorities confiscated 20,000 cases of opium and then blockaded the British fleet. The First Opium War broke out. In it, the Chinese fought on 16th century junks. It is not difficult to guess who won.

The Chinese were assigned a contribution: 21 million dollars and the islands of Hong Kong and Landao, as a base of “keeling and repair of ships. That is, the first possessions of the British in South China were fairly won in the struggle for the opium of the Chinese people. And in 1898 Britain leased the so-called New Territories from China for 99 years – by that time the empire’s colonial policy had become more delicate. But in the twentieth century, the only way to keep Hong Kong was to separate it from the New Territories, which was completely unprofitable and fraught with military conflict with China. So in 1984, after two years of negotiations, the parties finally reached a compromise: Great Britain agreed to give Hong Kong as a whole at the expiration of the lease agreement (that is, in 1997) in exchange for maintaining the capitalist system and the British way of life.

Hong Kong with no British crown - Photo 5

100 Years of Colonial History

China did not make this concession out of kindness, but because it seemed like a good way to declare its openness to the world and specifically to the West with its capitalist values.

Present tense, singular

From a political point of view, after 1997, one major change took place in Hong Kong: the citizens lost the right to elect the head of the region’s administration. And for tourists 20 years ago and now, Hong Kong is the same city: some things have closed down, some things have changed, as is often the case. But the view from Victoria Peak is still dizzying, The Ritz-Carlton is always the tallest, the speakeasy bars in the skyscrapers are still good and packed with trendy people. Of course, you have to trip over the suitcases of Chinese tourists, who have become more numerous, though not only in Hong Kong.

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Hong Kong with no British crown - Photo 6

Present tense, singular

Like New York, this city was built by immigrants, only for the most part they came not from across the ocean, but from the nearest Chinese border, but the difference in mentality and, most importantly, the thirst for change was as strong in them as in immigrants from the Old World. That’s why until now, the most effective way to offend a local resident is to call him Chinese: these people built Hong Kong not in their image, but in spite of the Celestial Empire. The wind that blows across Victoria Harbor smells to them of freedom and opportunity. It is their space station, where they have fled in search of a better life.

Hong Kong was never really “British,” it was cosmopolitan . To be a Hong Konger was to have both a Western and an Eastern mentality. Now, if you are not culturally or economically oriented towards the Chinese, you will not survive. The government is trying to teach simplified characters even though Hong Kong people have been using the traditional writing system for thousands of years. On the streets, you can rarely hear proper Cantonese speech as more than 300 migrants from China come here every day.

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Although Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, it is not customary to flaunt wealth. This is a characteristic Hong Kongers have probably picked up from the Protestant English. Or it is a consequence of the urban cult of hard work: where people are able to work, status symbols are distinguished by nobility. The exception is expensive cars, and even they look modest compared to sheikhs’ cars, though 90 % of the population uses public transport.

In addition, the financial well-being of the city is associated with an ardent belief in feng shui: Hong Kong people are, after all, the bearers of the ancient ideas about the structure of the universe, and the entire city is designed in such a way that a river of money and good luck flows into it.

Hong Kong with no British crown - Photo 8

Hong Kong is surrounded by water and fenced off from the mainland and the nearest province of Shenzhen by impregnable mountains. Maybe it’s thanks to these mountains that Hong Kong manages to maintain the “British way of life” prescribed in the treaty. After all, money and fortune are a good thing, but self-respect and good manners, which are in honor in good old England and in Hong Kong, are eternal values. China, however, does not intend to destroy “Englishness,” realizing perfectly well that it is one of Hong Kong’s trump cards. Millions of tourists travel for this Anglo-Saxon aesthetic under the Asian skies, and many Chinese love it – just across the border, and already as if on another continent. Not in Europe, America or Asia, but in a separate cultural space, a megalopolis blown by the wind from the ocean.

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