Gall and Wormwood in the Fragrant Harbour: Britain’s Relationship With Hong Kong

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Political unrest and dissent are not events that one would immediately associate with China since the 1949 Communist victory in the Civil War. But any Internet search concerning Hong Kong in 2019 will immediately bring up images of thousands of citizens lining the streets in protest, images rarely seen since the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. One wonders how the regime could allow these occurrences in one of the world’s most recognised cities. What makes Hong Kong distinct from China proper, why is its populace considerably more politically active than average Chinese citizens, and how can they so openly show their contempt against the PRC when this sort of discord would undoubtedly provoke government retaliation in mainland China? To answer that we must look back over 150 years, as the PRC is not the first power to exert hegemony over the city.

It has been nearly half a year since the Lam administration in Hong Kong tabled the Fugitive Offenders Bill, enabling the extradition of citizens to mainland China. This highly controversial legislation was criticised both domestically and internationally as an erosion of Hong Kong’s independent legal system and civil liberties, and the denizens of the Special Administrative Region launched a series of demonstrations against Chief Executive Carrie Lam, demanding that she withdraw the Bill entirely. These evolved over weeks and months into a general pro-democracy movement against the authoritarian People’s Republic of China, which maintains authority over the city under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. With sharp escalations in violence since June, and demonstrations in solidarity with the protesters taking place in cities around the globe, the movement shows no signs of abating. The situation in Hong Kong is now stuck between a rock and a hard place; should the pro-democracy front dissipate, as it did in 2014, it could invite further Communist encroachment into Hong Kong’s already tenuous political independence (set to expire regardless in 2047). Conversely, if it is Beijing’s iron-gloved hand that is forced, it will showcase to the entire world that a motley assemblage of protesters (still lacking in official leadership and comprised of mostly students) can dictate terms to the planet’s second-largest superpower.

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Hong Kong’s political separation from the authorities that ruled over China began in the mid-19th century. Back then, China enjoyed healthy trade relations with Europe and regular exports of silk, porcelain and (most importantly) tea made their way to Britain. As Britain’s supply of silver dwindled to fund the wars she was fighting on the Continent, the government established an illegal opium trade from the Indian Raj to China in order to satisfy the citizens’ increasing obsession with the communion of hot water and herbs. Needless to say, the Chinese government was not amused when they discovered that half their subjects were getting high on such a distasteful, ‘decadent’ Western concoction (especially from Westerners who would so disgustingly pervert their tea by adding milk) and proceeded to dump 20,000 crates of opium into the sea. Britain was even LESS amused by this and, in one of history’s first examples of ‘gunboat diplomacy’, sent warships to China, beginning the First Opium War.

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Chinese sail-powered junkboats proved outmatched by speedy British ‘magic’ ships (in reality, they were simply products of Britain’s recent embrace of steam-powered technology), and the Emperor was forced to accept a humiliating peace treaty that, among other reparations, ceded Hong Kong Island (then a tiny fishing community) to Britain ‘in perpetuity’. The Second Opium War 18 years later expanded British territory to include Kowloon peninsula. Fast-forwarding another 38 years saw a final addition of the New Territories to the colony under a 99-year lease. This, to British diplomats, was ‘as good as forever’.

British Hong Kong, in its 150 year existence, grew into a modern and westernised city. Neither Japanese occupation during WW2, nor the 1949 Communist takeover just miles away could dent the city’s fortunes for very long. Indeed, Mao’s victory drove most of Shanghai’s capitalist elite into Hong Kong to preserve their assets, through which the city became an economic ‘Asian Tiger’ and the business capital of the Far East. British culture permeated Hong Kong, and can still be seen today in local place names, mass infrastructure like bus and ferry services, all the way down to the red ‘pillbox’ letterboxes on street corners.

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Hong Kong reached the apex of its prosperity and global influence as the end of the UK’s lease approached.  Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher both recognised this and began a long, tortuous series of negotiations on how the territory would be handed back to China.

It was the largest transfer of territory between two such ideologically opposed political entities in history. The British delegation fought hard to preserve Hong Kong’s Western society for its 6 million residents (97% of British Overseas Citizens at the time), while China repeatedly made clear its ability to forcefully integrate the city if it wished. Eventually, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, in which Hong Kong would be represented and defended thereafter by China, but would keep its political and judicial structure intact for 50 years under a Bill of Rights. Thus, the sun finally set on the last of Britain’s empire when the Union Jack was lowered for the final time at Victoria Harbour in the early hours of 01/07/1997.

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We can only wonder if Britain could have done more to protect Hong Kong and its way of life in the Joint Declaration, trampled upon in recent years under the ambitions of President Xi Jinping. Even as the British values of individual liberty enshrined in Hong Kong’s citizens violently clash with Chinese doctrines of conformity and devotion to family (by extension, the nation itself), even as the age-old struggle of East vs West plays out under the glittering skyscrapers of globalisation, all we can ask is that Hong Kong’s people are met with no more punishment from foreign powers far greater than themselves, and that the guns of both sides are lowered before any more suffering and violence can take place.

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Sub-editor 2019/20. Third Year Neuroscience student with a particular interest in concepts where innovation can translate science-fiction to science-reality

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