At midnight on June 30 and into the morning of July 1, 1997 Britain formally ceded sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, ending more than 150 years of British rule. The moment would come to symbolize a changing world amid a more powerful China and an emerging Asia. China was a rising economic and military power even in the late 90s looking to reassert its will over territory ceded to foreign powers during past years of colonial and foreign interference over its internal affairs. The transfer of Hong Kong also represented Britain’s waning empire and influence as China’s slow rise was increasingly moderated by the United States’ increased engagement in the Pacific. Hong Kong’s return to China also set in motion a serious of disputes and calls for territorial re-incorporation like Macau in 1999 and more aggressive demands for Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan and lands claimed by the Republic of China as well.
Great Britain obtained Hong Kong from China in 1842 based on the Treaty of Nanking (known as part of the the unequal treaties by the Chinese) negotiations which came at the end of the First Opium Wars (1839-42). Demands by Britain for greater control of the Kowloon harbour resulted in a further acquisition in 1860 of southern Kowloon and an area known as Stonecutters Island. It was not until 1898 with the signing of the Second Convention of Peking that Hong Kong and its islands were officially ceded for a 99-year lease. Following the Chinese Revolution and Mao’s Communist victory in 1949 the Chinese government adopted an official policy of claiming all treaties with Britain over Hong Kong were invalid. With China’s economic reforms in the 90s Beijing’s growing influence bolstered China’s demands for the return of territories believed to have been ceded iniquitously. Indeed, the negotiations for the return of Hong Kong started 13 years before the official handover and put significant strain on Sino-British relations as a result. Events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the appointment of a controversial British governor for Hong Kong in 1992 also soured relations between the two nations.
Political reforms initiated by Chris Patten, Hong Kong last colonial governor, angered Beijing during the negotiations. Patten attempted to give greater political voice to citizens of Hong Kong by allowing democratic elections to the Legislative Council. Patten’s directive led to direct elections in 1991 and a fully elected assembly by 1995. It was, in part, this move that strengthened Britain’s negotiating approach to secure Hong Kong’s autonomy after handover. China agreed to allow Hong Kong a greater degree of autonomy with the exception of foreign relations and defense, guaranteeing that the higher levels of GDP and lifestyle of Hong Kong (roughly 40 times higher in Hong Kong than mainland China) for fifty years post-transition would be maintained. Few believed that this commitment from Beijing would be honoured given the dramatic crackdown of civilian protests and human rights after the 1989 Tiananmen events.
The handover ceremony itself included all the pomp and pageantry expected of a highly anticipated event in China. Numerous prominent dignitaries from around the world attended the event, including President of the Peoples Republic of China Jiang Zemin and Premier Li Peng, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Prince Charles, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Prince Charles provided a sombre but stern reminder of the Hong Kong’s political, economic and social successes declaring: “We shall not forget you, and we shall watch with the closest interest as you embark on this new era of your remarkable history.” Chinese officials meanwhile promised to ensure that Hong Kong would continue to thrive and to guarantee the “one country, two systems” envisioned for the city. The military also played a symbolic role in the ceremony. Chinese troops on the morning of the handover took control of the all military installations and garrisons and a large military presence in Hong Kong was meant to portray a safe and secure handover. Democratic rallies did occur on the day of Hong Kong’s return to China, but Chinese officials tread carefully in suppressing the protests in light of international concern over China’s questionable human rights record. In the early morning hours of July 1 both Prince Charles and former Hong Kong Governor, Chris Patten were escorted to the harbour where they boarded the royal yacht Britannia. Symbolism was not lost on locals as a British royal shop sailed out of Hong Kong harbour for the last time.
As feared Hong Kong’s Legislative Council was immediately dissolved after the handover and replaced by loyal apparatchiks hand-picked by the Beijing government. A host of civil liberties enjoyed by citizens of Hong Kong were quickly abolished on July 1, including the freedom to protest, free speech and open support for the independence of either Tibet or Taiwan was explicitly banned. Present-day Hong Kong’s distinct status – although maintained – still remains a cause of considerable discomfort for Beijing. Hong Kong is still in direct competition with Shanghai to be the financial and economic hub of China, and mainland Chinese have placed considerable strain and demand on products from Hong Kong that are believed to be safer (i.e. baby milk formula, etc.). Many products are cleared out by mainland Chinese buyers leaving citizens of Hong Kong without access to those same products. Protests continue to highlight Hong Kong’s desire to maintain a greater degree of autonomy but few believe that China would entertain any possibility of further concessions in this respect.
Hong Kong’s return to China may indeed have been a peaceful transition but it was a watershed moment in many respects. For all of Britain’s colonial faults, Hong Kong was left with a legacy of the the rule of law that even China can’t extinguish so easily. While China continues to dabble in economic reforms it will not be able to so publicly crush Hong Kong’s distinctiveness like in other regions of China. Hong Kong remains in the spotlight as the world watches China’s growing influence go unchecked by a wary Asia and weakening US interest to be the regions watchdog. Most recently, China has implemented electoral reforms on how candidates are chosen for Hong Kong’s chief executive that triggered mass protests in 2014. Beijing’s concern about the eroding of communist power both in Hong Kong and the mainland mean peaceful protests may not be met with a peaceful response for long. International pressure on China to allow for democratic elections in Hong Kong has largely been met by resistance from Beijing. As Chinese influence continues to be exerted in the South China Sea with impunity, there is little hope that the citizens of Hong Kong will be able to make Beijing buckle to its demands. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 was a necessary historical event from the standpoint of treaty obligations, but it signaled the demise of a bastion of democracy in Asia. One empire may have left, but a very different one took its place.
Watch the Hong Kong Handover Ceremony from 1997 below.