On 25 January, 1841, the British survey ship Sulphur landed on Hong Kong, a small Chinese island with a population of merely 3,000 people, most of whom were fishers and stone-cutters. The largest settlement, located in present-day Stanley, had about 1,000 villagers.

The following day, Tuesday, 26 January, Commodore Sir J. J. G. Bremmer, the Commander of the naval forces and joint plenipotentiary, arrived with a squadron of ships and formally took possession of Hong Kong. The Union Jack was hoisted, a feu de joie was fired by the Marines, and a royal salute by the ships of war (Charles Collins, Public Administration in Hong Kong, 1952, p. 22).

China, which was then ruled by the Qing Dynasty, officially ceded Hong Kong to the British with the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing on 29 August 1842 on board the British vessel HMS Cornwallis, thus ending the First Opium War between Great Britain and the Qing Empire. After ratification was exchanged on 26 June 1843, Hong Kong was formally established as a Crown Colony (Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong: 1841-1997, 2007, p. 11).

Article III of the Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that “the Island of Hong Kong, … be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannick Majesty, her Heirs and Successors, and … be governed by such laws and regulations as Her Majesty the Queen … shall see fit to direct” (ibid., p. 17).

Afterwards the British set about creating a government for their small overseas possession. Queen Victoria issued the two constitutional foundations of the colony: the Letters Patent and the Royal Instructions. According to the Letters Patent of 5 April 1843, Hong Kong was to be ruled by a Governor appointed by the Crown, who enjoyed “full power and authority” and was overseen by the Parliament in London. The Governor was assisted in his functions by an Executive Council and a Legislative Council. The first Governor of Hong Kong was Henry Pottinger (ibid.).

In early October 1856, Chinese authorities detained the British ship Arrow in the harbour of the city of Guangzhou. That prompted Britain to once again wage war against the Qing Empire, a conflict that became known as the Second Opium War, or Arrow War. British troops seized the tip of the Kowloon peninsula opposite Hong Kong Island. With the Convention of Beijing (1860) China agreed to cede to Britain the area of Kowloon peninsula south of present-day Boundary Street, as well as Stonecutter’s Island. That was the first territorial expansion of the Crown Colony.

Over the following years Britain became increasingly uneasy about the strategic situation of Hong Kong. The Qing Empire still owned the main part of Kowloon peninsula and all the islands surrounding Hong Kong, except for Stonecutter’s Island. This made the defence of the colony extremely difficult in case of a Chinese attack. During the 1880s and 1890s, various British commanders in Hong Kong lobbied the War Office to seek territorial expansion.

Sir Claude MacDonald, Britain’s Minister (ambassador) in China, was instructed to begin negotiations with Beijing on the matter. The talks between MacDonald’s team and their Chinese counterparts, headed by the famous statesman Li Hongzhang, began in April 1898.

One has to bear in mind that China was at the time in a very weak position. The Empire had been recently defeated by Japan in the Sino-Japanese War (1895), and various foreign powers, including France, Germany and Russia, were vying to seize portions of Chinese territory. Therefore, Li Hongzhang wanted to appease British demands in order to avoid a war that he knew China could not win.

The British requested the cession of the remaining part of Kowloon peninsula up to the Shenzhen River as well as 230 surrounding islands, an area of about 370 square miles, ten times the size of the territory the British already controlled.

The Chinese side came up with a plan to minimize the losses. They made MacDonald an offer: they would lease the territory to Britain for 99 years. The Chinese were thinking in the long term, believing that if they handed over the territory on a temporary basis they might be able to recover it later. The British, however, saw the arrangement as a de facto cession of land and did not think about the future prospects of how to keep the Colony after the lease expired. The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, did not even contemplate the possibility that some day China might be powerful enough to demand the territories back or seize them by force.

The British, confident in their own strength, and certain of China’s economic and military inferiority, could not imagine that by the 1980s the British government would be confronted with a powerful Chinese regime. In the words of the historian Steve Tsang, in 1898 London was not aware that it had just made “an appointment with China.”

On June 9 Britain and China signed the second Convention of Beijing, which came into effect on 1 July, starting a 99-year lease that would end on 1 July, 1997.

With the Royal Order in Council of 20 October 1898, the acquired areas, known simply as the New Territories, were made “part and parcel of Her Majesty’s Colony of Hong Kong in like manner and for all intents and purposes as if they had originally formed part of the said Colony” (see Tsang, pp. 31 – 40).

Map showing the British acquisition of Hong Kong Island (1842), Southern Kowloon and Stonecutters Island (1860) and Northern Kowloon and the New Territories (1898) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Communist China, Hong Kong and the United Front

In 1911 revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Empire and founded the Republic of China (ROC). However, the ROC soon discended into political chaos and warlords seized power in various provinces. In 1923 Sun Yat-sen and his party, the Guomindang, formed a military government in Guangdong province, which bordered on British Hong Kong.

In an age of increasing Chinese nationalism, the turmoil in the ROC soon spilled over into the Crown Colony, which many Chinese viewed as a symbol of Western imperialism and national humiliation.

In 1925, the Guomindang government orchestrated and financed a general strike and a boycott in Hong Kong, which lasted for 16 months and brought the economy to a standstill. In June 1925 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), at the time in a temporary alliance with the Guomindang, helped initiate the strike, which soon involved about 250,000 workers, out of a total population of about 725,000.

Hong Kong Governor Reginald Edward Stubbs pursued a heavy-handed strategy to confront the strike. He invoked emergency powers, imposed censorship and allowed the police to search and detain suspects. Stubbs even carried out a plan, without London’s authorization, to overthrow the Guomindang government in Guangdong by giving the warlord Chen Jiongming 100,000 Hong Kong dollars for the purpose of staging a coup d’etat and setting up a pro-British government. Stubbs’ approach to the turmoil was not only unsuccessful, but his repressive actions backfired. In November he was replaced by Cecil Clementi.

In the meantime, however, the Guomindang shifted its focus from anti-imperialism to a military campaign to defeat the warlords and unify China under its own authority. On October 10, 1926, the Guangdong government formally lifted the boycott. (Tsang 2007, pp. 91 – 99).

Relations between British Hong Kong and the Guomindang government improved throughout the 1930s. Since the Chinese authorities were confronted with an increasingly belligerent Japan, they did not want to provoke a conflict with London. The state of Sino-British relations during that period was described by Lennox A. Mills thus:

The relations of the Colony with the National Government of China have very greatly improved since the days of the general strike and boycott. After the failure of that attempt, anti-British propaganda continued on a considerable scale until about 1930 …

Since about 1930 the amount of Kuomintang [=Guomindag] seditious activity has been negligible, and the relations of the British and Chinese Governments have become increasingly friendly. The principal reason for the change has been the growing menace from Japan, and the desire of the Chinese Government to cultivate friendly relations with Great Britain in the hope of obtaining her aid in the struggle. The attainment of this purpose was obviously incompatible with anti-British propaganda or with any renewal of the boycott.

“The Kuomintang was not reconciled to the existence of British rule in Hong Kong; and if the threat from Japan had been removed it would sooner or later have demanded its rendition and perhaps recommenced an intensive anti-British campaign. It is also probable that the Chinese leaders realized that in the unsettled state of the Far East they might need Hong Kong as a refuge in the future as in the past; and since the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War many Chinese have gone there for safety. Furthermore, even if the Chinese Government had succeeded in getting rid of British control Japan would not have allowed the principal trade centre of South China to remain long under Chinese sovereignty” (Lennox A. Mills, British Rule in Eastern Asia: A Study of Contemporary Government and Economic Development in British Malaya and Hong Kong, 1942, pp. 411-412).

During World War II the ROC and Great Britain were allied against Japan. In 1942 the leader of the ROC, Chiang Kai-shek, obtained from the British the assurance that the question of the political status of the New Territories would be discussed after the war (Steve Tsang, ed., Government and Politics: A Documentary History of Hong Kong, 1995, p. 275).

In August 1945 Chiang Kai-shek stated that although China viewed Hong Kong as part of its territory that had be recovered, it did not wish to resolve the issue immediately. He said:

I wish to state here that the present status of Hong Kong is regulated by a treaty signed by China and Great Britain. Changes in future will be introduced only through friendly negotiations between the two countries. Our foreign policy is to honour treaties, rely upon law and seek rational readjustments when the requirements of time and actual conditions demand such readjustments. Now that all the leased territories and settlements in China have been one after another returned to China, the leased territory of Kowloon should not remain an exception. But China will settle the last issue through diplomatic talks between the two countries” (quoted in: Tsang 2007, p. 151).

After the war, British authorities began to think about the future of Hong Kong, especially in light of the 99-year lease of the New Territories.

In 1945 the Colonial Office submitted a paper on Hong Kong’s future which was adopted by the Cabinet Office’s Far Eastern Planning Unit. The Colonial Office considered four options: 1) rejection of the Chinese demand for the return of Hong Kong or the New Territories; 2) the return of the New Territories to China under certain conditions; 3) a new lease whereby Britain would retain the administration of Hong Kong for a number of years but hand formal sovereignty over to China; 4) the handover of the entire colony to China (ibid., p. 148).

However, due to the civil war that broke out between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communists shortly after the end of World War II, China was in no position to focus on the issue of Hong Kong. In 1949 the Guomindang was defeated and fled to Taiwan. Communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Hong Kong was suddenly at the forefront of the Cold War.

The Communist regime regarded the treaties between Britain and China concerning the status of Hong Kong as “unequal treaties” and therefore invalid. However, Mao Zedong and the Communist elite did not view the return of Hong Kong as a priority. Their policy towards Hong Kong was to maintain the status quo until they felt that the moment was right to negotiatiate the withdrawal of Britain (see Tsang 2007, p. 152-154).

The Communist victory in the civil war changed Britain’s attitude. London considered the PRC a hostile power, unlike the Guomindang regime. The British feared Communist-led unrest orchestrated by Beijing-sponsored trade unions, and though they did not think that war was imminent, they massively reinforced the Hong Kong garrison, sending 30,000 troops supported by tanks, a fleet and an air force.

In the summer of 1949 the British Cabinet laid down its new policy in a paper which argued that Hong Kong must be held. The paper stated:

We cannot agree to negotiate about Hong Kong with a Government which is unfriendly, since we should be negotiating under duress. We should equally refuse to discuss the future of Hong Kong with a Government which is undemocratic, since we should not be prepared to hand the people of Hong Kong over to a Communist regime. Finally, we should be unwilling to discuss Hong Kong with a China which is not united, because its future would be likely to become a pawn in the contest between conflicting factions. Unless there were a stable Government we could not rely on it to preserve Hong Kong as a secure free port and place of exchange between China and the rest of the world” (quoted in Tsang 2007, p. 155).

However, the British government was aware that sooner or later it would have to confront the issue of the expiration of the New Territories’ lease in 1997. The document continued:

It does not seem likely that when that time comes any Chinese Government will be prepared to renew the lease. Without these territories Hong Kong would be untenable, and it is therefore probable that before 1997 the United Kingdom Government of the day will have to consider the status of Hong Kong. But we are surely not justified some two generations in advance of the event in attempting to lay down the principles which should govern any arrangement which it may be possible to reach with China at that time” (ibid.).

The British simply chose to ignore the problem of the long-term future of Hong Kong for the time being, and to focus on holding the colony for as long as possible.

In this respect, a particularly thorny issue was what kind of formal contact should be maintained between Hong Kong and the Communist authorities.

In 1946 the Guomindang government had appointed T.W. Kwok as Special Commissioner for Hong Kong. Kwok was the first consular representative of China that Hong Kong had ever had, but his office was closed after the British switched diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC in January 1950.

In 1956 PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai requested to open a representative office in Hong Kong, but the British Governor refused to grant to the Communist regime the privilege that had been given to the ROC (Tsang 1995, p. 275).

In a letter from 19 November 1957 Hong Kong Governor Alexander Grantham explained to Secretary of State Alan Lennox-Boyd why he was opposed to the establishment of a PRC representative office in Hong Kong.

Below are some excerpts from the letter:

My strong opposition to a resident representative may be summarised as follows: (a) Fresh impetus would be given to United Front activity in the Colony. I have repeatedly (. . .) stated that the policy of the Chinese government towards Hong Kong in recent years is to build up an United Front allying innocuous non-Communist elements in the Colony with pro-Communist elements, who would thus be lent an aura of respectability.

At the same time the Chinese government appear to have hopes of achieving a state of affairs in which the Hong Kong government will be sufficiently intimidated to refrain from action unwelcome to the Chinese government. Both of these measures appear directly designed to facilitate the ultimate objective of the Chinese government, which is the re–incorporation of Hong Kong with China. The appointment of a quasi–diplomatic representative could help the Chinese to prepare the ground for this development far better than the present representatives of more specialised Chinese government agencies of their local fellow-travelling allies are able to do.

(b) It would have a deplorable effect upon the morale of the great majority of Chinese in the Colony, who would be given the impression that Great Britain was making a first move in the direction of selling them out. Local Chinese would regard it as evidence that H.M.G. in the United Kingdom were unable or unwilling to resist pressure from Communist China. Many more fence-sitters would feel that the time had come to throw in their lot with the Communists; and local pressure groups, which the Communists have tried to create in order to stir up agitation against the Government in matters of domestic policy, would be given fresh encouragement.

(c) It would convey the impression to the United States Government and to Commonwealth and other friendly countries that we were on the road to retreat from Hong Kong. In matters of defence policy this might well turn the scale against any firm guarantee of military support.

“(d) There would be no end to the claims of the representative as to what constituted his functions. Even if, as Mr. Wilson [British Charge in Peking] implies, interference by the representative in internal matters were to be used as a pretext for declining any further political concession to the Chinese, it may well be the case that the state of tension would become such as to make it necessary for my successor to expel the Chinese representative if he attempted to interfere, as well he might, in police or legal matters involving Chinese who are British subjects. An expelled representative would certainly be a far more serious issue than an initial refusal to admit a representative.

“(e) The representative would become a prime target for K.M.T. and other anti- Communist activities in the Colony. It would for example be impossible to allow him to see for himself that the Chinese government had got their facts wrong in a dispute, e.g. about resettlement, without risking a serious disturbance. The security of the representative’s person would be a constant worry and responsibility.

For all these reasons the establishment of a representative in Hong Kong would be calculated to increase rather than to diminish tension between the United Kingdom and China over Hong Kong questions. Far from lessening the source of friction, the friction-creating bodies would be brought into closer contact. Matters which can now be confined to diplomatic and propaganda exchanges in Peking and London would become conflicts taking place within this Colony, in addition to providing still more serious grounds for diplomatic and propaganda exchanges” (quoted in: Tsang, 1995, pp. 275- 276).

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