Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protest 2019 (by Studio Incendo via Wikimedia Commons)

On 30 June 2020, the unelected, Communist Party-controlled legislature of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) passed by a unanimous vote a new national security law for the former British colony of Hong Kong.

According to Article 1, the law was enacted for the purpose of “ensuring the resolute, full and faithful implementation of the policy of One Country, Two Systems”, of “safeguarding national security”, and of “preventing, suppressing and imposing punishment for the offences of secession, subversion, organisation and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security in relation to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”

Article 6 states that it is “the common responsibility of all the people of China, including the people of Hong Kong, to safeguard the sovereignty, unification and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China,” a clear reference to both Hong Kong’s localist movements as well as to China’s territorial claims on independent Taiwan.

Article 9 further affirms that the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organisations, the media, and the internet.”

Amnesty International called the law “dangerously vague and broad” because “virtually anything could be deemed a threat to ‘national security'”. The law was enacted by a legislative body which is not elected, not accountable to the people that it affects, and without the participation and oversight of the elected Hong Kong legislature. It was also clearly opposed by a large section of the Hong Kong public which, as we shall see below, had already protested en masse against similar legislation.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who was appointed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), defended the national security law, falsely calling it “mild” and “not broad” in scope.

But, as was to be expected, the new national security law soon led to an unprecedented crackdown on politicians and activists.

In January 2021, 53 individuals were detained under the national security law on charges of “subverting state power”. Since the enactment of the law, numerous leading figures of Hong Kong’s democracy movement were arrested, among them activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and professor Benny Tai, the initiator of the 2014 Occupy Central movement.

On February 28, 47 of them were charged with conspiracy to subvert state power on account of primaries which democratic parties held to determine the candidates that would run in the city’s legislature. Their plan was to vote down the Chief Executive’s bills and push her to resign. These activities, a normal part of the democratic process, were deemed by the government subversive under the national security law. As of the time of writing, every major opposition voice in Hong Kong is either in jail or in exile.

The CCP had long tried to pass national security legislation to stifle Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Back in 2003 half a million people took to the streets to protest against a proposed national security law. Public pressure succeeded in persuading the government to back down.

But as the CCP became ever more authoritarian under the leadership of Xi Jinping, and as democratic values appeared on the retreat globally, in March 2019 an extradition bill was unveiled which would have allowed for the first time the Hong Kong authorities to hand over to their mainland Chinese counterparts individuals accused by Beijing of alleged crimes, sparking fears that the CCP would use this law to get hold of Hong Kong-based dissidents and prosecute them in courts controlled by the CCP.

The proposed bill led to popular backlash and to massive demonstrations. On June 16, 2019, around 2 million people took to the streets peacefully. Unprecedented acts of brutality by the Hong Kong police brought about an escalation that resulted in months-long protests and violence.

One year after those first demonstrations, the CCP decided to put an end to Hong Kong’s democracy movement by enacting the national security law.  By doing so, Beijing not only wiped out Hong Kong’s freedoms and way of life, but it also destroyed with a single stroke of a pen this unique, 178-year-old experiment which began when the British conquered the island of Hong Kong in 1841.

In this article, we shall look back at the rise and decline of modern Hong Kong, focusing on the development of the colonial system and its undoing by the CCP regime. We shall argue that British rule, despite its flaws and contradictions, succeeded thanks to a number of internal and external factors in creating a dynamic, wealthy, liberal and cosmopolitan society. Not by design, but due to historical circumstances, the colonial government managed to build popular consensus, whereas the Chinese Communist government failed in building consensus and preserving the values with which millions of Hong Kong people identify.


1. The foundations of the British colonial government

Under British rule Hong Kong was never a democracy. The colonial administration was an autocratic system with liberal features, with a relatively efficient bureaucracy and a laissez-faire attitude towards the colony’s residents. Furthermore, it had a range of official and unofficial checks and balances that we will discuss below.

The Hong Kong government has thus been described by observers variously as a “liberal autocracy” (Zakaria 1997), a system of “legitimized authoritarianism” and of “benevolent paternalism” (see: Ming Sing: Hong Kong at the crossroads. Public pressure for democratic reform, in: Ming Sing (ed.), Politics and Government in Hong Kong. Crisis under Chinese sovereignty, 2008; Steve Tsang, A History of Hong Kong, 2004, p. 200).

Such definitions highlight the contradictory nature of the British colonial government. We shall attempt to explain later how and why the Hong Kong government managed to reconcile these contradictions.

From a purely constitutional point of view, though, British Hong Kong was an autocracy where power lay in the hands of a Governor appointed by the British government.

When Britain defeated imperial China in the First Opium War (1839 – 1842), the Chinese government ceded under Article III of the Treaty of Nanjing “the Island of Hong Kong, to be possessed in perpetuity by Her Britannick Majesty, her Heirs and Successors, and to be governed by such laws and regulations as Her Majesty the Queen… shall see fit to direct” (quoted in Tsang 2004, p. 18).

The Colony of Hong Kong was formally established after the exchange of ratification in June 1843, and Sir Henry Pottinger became its first Governor.

The constitutional foundation for the colony were the Letters Patent and the Royal Instructions from Queen Victoria, which gave the Governor appointed at royal pleasure “full power and authority” as the representative of the Queen (see ibid.).

Sir Henry Pottinger’s house in Victoria, Hong Kong, 1845, by E. Ashworth via Wikimedia Commons

From a legal standpoint, the Governor was entirely unaccountable to the people of Hong Kong. Hong Kong had no genuine separation of powers, no elected lawmakers, and the judiciary was appointed by the Governor. But in practice, his power was limited by institutional restraints and external factors.

First of all, he served at the pleasure of the Queen or King and was subordinate to the elected British parliament which supervised and reviewed his performance.

Second, the Governor had to take into account the needs of British citizens, not only because of their wealth, but also because they could circumvent him and directly lobby the British government. The Western community in Hong Kong, which by 1860 numbered only about 2,000 people, consisted mostly of merchants, especially opium traders. When Governor Davis tried to raise local revenue by introducing rates and other measures, in 1845 the merchant community petitioned the British government to take over the financing of the colonial administration so that they would not have to pay for it. Although London ultimately rejected their proposal, this episode shows that the existence of a higher authority, and an elected one at that, was a fundamental check on the Governor’s power (see Steve Tsang, Governing Hong Kong, 2007, pp. 3-4).

Third, the size of the Hong Kong colonial government was extremely small and it simply would not have had the financial capabilities and the manpower to establish an oppressive police state even if it had wanted to. Not only did the Governor have a small budget due to low taxation, but until the 1940s the colonial government had just 35 administrative officers (Tsang 2004, p. 198).

Fourth, the vast majority of Hong Kong’s population consisted of ethnic Chinese. By 1861, the Chinese population numbered nearly 120,000, while, as we have mentioned earlier, the European population was only around 2,000 (Tsang 2007, p. 15). It is obvious that given the small size of the British community and the need to maintain order and stability, it would have been entirely unrealistic for the British Governor to engage in blatant acts of brutality towards the ethnic Chinese.

The British organized colonial society along racial lines, giving priority to the interests of Britain and of the white population. For instance, in 1904 the colonial government passed the racist Peak District Reservation Ordinance, which prohibited any Chinese to reside in the exclusive Peak area which was favoured by the British elite for its cooler climate.

However, that does not mean that the Chinese community had no power or influence. Chinese merchants did reap the benefits of trade, and by 1855 more Chinese paid rates than Westerners. “In that year, among those who paid rates of £10 and above, 1,637 out of 1,999 were Chinese, while of those who paid £40 and above, 410 out of 772 were Chinese” (Tsang 2004, p. 59). In August 1881 Governor John Hennessy sent to London a list of Hong Kong’s largest ratepayers, which showed 17 Chinese names and only one British (G. B. Endacott, Government and People in Hong Kong 1841-1962. A constitutional history, 1964, p. 92).

Chinese merchants and builders like Tam Achoy, Loo Aqui and Kwok Acheong amassed huge fortunes, and by the early 20th century the wealthiest man in Hong Kong is believed to have been Robert Hotung, the son of English trader Walter Bosman and of a Chinese woman. He was also the only non-white to be allowed to reside on the Peak. He was knighted by the British Crown in 1915 (Tsang 2004, pp. 48-57; Kaori Abe, Chinese Middlemen in Hong Kong’s Colonial Economy, 1830-1890, 2017, chapter 5).

In 1879 the Chinese community sent a petition to the Governor, asking that since the Chinese were ten times the number of Westerners “henceforth it would be but fair to allow the Chinese community a share in the management of public affairs of the Colony” (Endacott 1964, p. 92).

Hennessy not only encouraged the Chinese to purchase land in areas that had been exclusively settled by Westerners such as Queen’s Road, but he also appointed Wu Ting-fang as the first Chinese member of the Legislative Council in 1880, despite the reluctance of the British government (ibid., pp. 92-94).

The British gradually coopted members of the affluent Chinese business elite. On the one hand, wealthy Chinese helped legitimize the colonial government and served as middlemen between the colonial government and the Chinese community. On the other hand, they were essential to the economy of the colony thanks to their business connections with China (Benjamin K.P. Leung, Perspectives on Hong Kong society, 1996, p. 3).

From the founding of the colony up until 1941, when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, a total of 18 Chinese served in the Legislative and Executive Councils. All of them were businessmen who spoke English. Here is how T.C. Cheng described one of them in a lecture to the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1968:

“Ho Fook … younger half-brother of … Robert Hotung … was another outstanding student of the Central School. In 1878 when the Governor, Sir John Pope Hennessy, attended his first Prize Giving at the Central School, Ho Fook, then in Class 2, received from him a prize in the form of a gold pencil case. He served in the Compradore’s Department of Jardine, Matheson & Company and in 1900 was a founder of the Chinese Merchants Bureau… Ho Fook was a generous benefactor of education. In 1917 he donated HK$50,000 to the University of Hong Kong… He also endowed prizes in all the faculties of the University” (T. C. Cheng, Chinese Unofficial Members of the Legislative and Executive Councils in Hong Kong up to 1941, in: Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society Vol. 9 (1969), p. 20).

Some of the prominent Chinese serving in the Legislative Council were: Wong Shing, appointed in 1884; Kai Ho Kai, appointed in 1890 and knighted in 1912; Chow Shou-son, appointed in 1921, knighted in 1926; Ng Hon-tsz, appointed in 1922, knighted in 1938; Tso Seen-wan, appointed in 1929; Chau Tsun-nin, appointed in 1931, knighted in 1956; Lo Man-kam, appointed in 1936, knighted in 1948; Li Shu-fan, appointed in 1937; Thomas Tam, appointed in 1939 (ibid. p. 30).

Chow Shou-son in 1881 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Wealthy Chinese businessmen were a fundamental link between the British government on the one hand, and the Chinese imperial government as well as the Hong Kong ethnic Chinese community on the other. By facilitating trade between Hong Kong and China, they amassed wealth and made themselves indispensable to the British economically. By acting as leaders of the Chinese community, through philanthropic work and the establishment of temples, healthcare facilities and other institutions, and by upholding social stability and order, they became indispensable to the British politically. As a result, the colonial government soon integrated them into their administrative structure, granting them relative powers and honours (see Abe 2017, chapter 5).

The wealthy Chinese business elite of the urban areas was a byproduct of the British empire. It was a new elite that rose thanks to trade and settled in British-controlled territories which prior to the colonial era had been sparsely populated.

An entirely different situation presented itself in the rural areas of the New Territories acquired by the British from the imperial Chinese government through a 99-year lease agreement in 1898. According to the 1901 census, there were over 100,000 native Chinese people in the New Territories, whose settlement in the region dated back centuries. The New Territories were dominated by five powerful families, the so-called “five great clans”: the Tang, Hau, Pang, Liu and Man clans (more on this in a previous article). The New Territories therefore had a sizeable population, a culture and an elite structure that pre-dated the British conquest.

The native ethnic Chinese population regarded the invaders as barbarians who should be resisted and expelled. However, within a short period of time the British managed to pacify the New Territories and consolidate their colonial rule. They did so in a manner that resembles that of urban areas, namely by coopting and recruiting community leaders capable of mobilizing grassroots support either for or against the authorities. By offering them a position of relative power within colonial society, the British turned potential enemies into partners.

The British thereby relied on “indirect rule”. The original rural leaders, those who had power and wealth prior to the British conquest, became middlemen between the colonial government and the rural community. The British offered rural leaders broad autonomy, material benefits and stability. At times, the colonial government supported factions within those communities in order to advance its own interests and policies. In addition, economic changes served as incentive for rural communities to accept some government policies, such as the post-war government-led urbanization (see Stephen W.K. Chiu, Ho-fung Hung, State Building and Rural Stability, in: Tak-Wing Ngo (ed.), Hong Kong’s History. State and Society Under Colonial Rule, 2002, chapter 5).

It must also be pointed out that the way ethnic Chinese people in Hong Kong viewed the British government always depended on how it compared with China. Chaos, turmoil, wars and poverty in China during the 19th and 20th century made the relative stability and safety of Hong Kong seem appealing to many Chinese settlers despite the fact that in the first century of British rule they faced racial discrimination and the government provided little to no assistance to them in terms of education, housing, labour rights etc. Moreover, it must be emphasized that while Hong Kong was not a democracy, neither was China. But unlike China, Hong Kong enjoyed, by the standards of the time, stability and good governance. In the first century of colonial rule up until the Second World War, the Hong Kong government achieved a relative degree of efficiency and in spite of its racist nature it was a minimalistic, unobtrusive government which interfered as little as possible in the affairs of the Chinese community (see Tsang 2004, pp. 197-200).

The example of good governance in Hong Kong left a long-lasting impression on one of the most prominent Chinese political leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century, the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen. In the 1920s he told students at his alma mater, the University of Hong Kong: “Where and how did I get my revolutionary and modern ideas? I got my ideas in this very place, in Hong Kong. We must carry the English example of good government to every part of China” (quoted in: Tsang 2007, p. viii).


2. From the Second World War to the 1966-67 Riots

For much of its history Hong Kong was a transient place, a port city and business hub within the network of the British empire, a colony where most people did not strike roots. As explained in a previous article, there was no distinct Hong Kong identity among the majority of the city’s residents. The Hong Kong government pursued a laissez-faire strategy towards the Chinese community. As long as they did not endanger the order and stability of the colony, they were left alone.

This began to change after the Second World War. The era from 1945 to 1997 was characterized by high economic growth and the improvement of living standards, by the development of a distinct Hong Kong identity, and by a shift within the colonial government towards building social consensus through education, welfare, public services and efficiency. The ultimate success of Hong Kong did not happen by design, but it was the result of a series of factors and momentous events which shaped British colonial policy in Hong Kong. Let us now enumerate those factors and events before we proceed to examine them:

  1. In 1945 a civil war between the government of the Republic of China (ROC) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong and backed by the Soviet Union broke out. The war ended with the defeat of the ROC authorities and their retreat to Taiwan. On 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Suddenly Hong Kong was at the forefront of the Cold War. The Chinese civil war and the “China factor” deeply influenced the domestic situation in Hong Kong , its geopolitical role, and the policies of the colonial government.
  2. The popular riots of 1966 and the Communist-led riots of 1967 showed that the Hong Kong colonial government could not exist without some degree of support among the ethnic Chinese population. This prompted the government to become more responsive to popular demands.
  3. Decolonization and relative loss of power meant that the United Kingdom could not act as it did in the early colonial period. It had to legitimize itself, avoid confrontation with China, and show a humane and benevolent attitude towards Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese.

We shall now discuss these historical factors to try to explain how the British government succeeded in building consensus among the Hong Kong people and gain a reputation for efficiency and honesty.

2.1. – The “China Factor”

The civil war between the ROC government and the Communist insurgents completely changed Hong Kong’s geopolitical status and domestic situation. The ROC government had been a relatively easy neighbour to deal with, both because of its inherent weakness and because it had been an ally of the United States and the United Kingdom against Japan during World War II. On 11 March 1941 the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, which authorized the President to sell, lease or lend military supplies to any country he designated as vital to American national security.

Originally intended to help the UK in its war effort against Nazi Germany, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to include the ROC in the list of countries to assist, even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour had taken place. Roosevelt also sent a representative, Lauchlin Currie, to the ROC. On February 10 Currie met with ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek and informed him that the US government would provide China with US$45 million in military aid. In February 1943, Chiang Kai Shek’s wife, Song Meiling, gave speeches in the United States House and the Senate, arguing that China and the US were “fighting for the same cause” and had “identity of ideals”. In November 1943, Chiang Kai-shek took part in the Cairo Conference alongside Roosevelt and Churchill (Jay Taylor, The Generalissimo. Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, 2009, chapter 5).

After the war, Chiang Kai-shek reaffirmed China’s territorial claim over Hong Kong, but he did not demand an immediate handover of the colony. In August 1945 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 2004, p. 151).

On 1 May 1946, Sir Mark Young resumed his duties as Governor of Hong Kong after his tenure had been interrupted by the Japanese occupation that lasted from 1941 to 1945.

In the post-war years the British government, in the wider context of the liberalization of the empire, decided to introduce constitutional reforms in Hong Kong to pave the way for self-government. At the ceremony celebrating his return to Hong Kong, Sir Young stated:

“His Majesty’s Government has under consideration the means by which in Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the Colonial Empire, the inhabitants of the Territory can be given a fuller and more responsible share in the management of their own affairs. One possible method of achieving this end would be by handing over certain functions of internal administration, hitherto exercised by the Government, to a Municipal Council constituted on a fully representative basis” (quoted in: Endacott 1964, p. 182).

Young proposed the establishment of a Municipal Council elected partly by voters directly and partly by representative bodies. Young sent his proposals to the UK Secretary of State for the Colonies in October 1946, which were approved (ibid., pp.185-189). After a long public deliberation, on 3 June 1949 the government passed The Municipal Corporation Bill, The Municipal Electors Bill and the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Bill, which were the foundations of constitutional reform.

It was decided that the Municipal Council would control the urban areas of Hong Kong Island, Ap Lei Chau and Stonecutters Island, Kowloon and New Kowloon. One-third of its members would be elected by Chinese, one-third by non-Chinese, and the remaining third by Chinese and non-Chinese unofficial representative bodies such as the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Registered Trade Unions, the University of Hong Kong etc. Furthermore, Young proposed a reform of the Legislative Council that would have allowed for the indirect election of four of its members (ibid., pp.185-189).

However, when the Communists took over China’s government, relations between Hong Kong and China became much more tense and perilous. The Communists regarded the US as an enemy, the embodiment of capitalism and imperialism. On 18 August 1949 Mao Zedong stated:

“The war to turn China into a U.S. colony, a war in which the United States of America supplies the money and guns and Chiang Kai-shek the men to fight for the United States and slaughter the Chinese people, has been an important component of the U.S. imperialist policy of world-wide aggression since World War II … [T]he Chinese people have awakened, and the armed forces and the organized strength of the people under the leadership of the Communist Party of China have become more powerful than ever before. Consequently, the ruling clique of U.S. imperialism has been prevented from adopting a policy of direct, large-scale armed attacks on China and instead has adopted a policy of helping Chiang Kai-shek fight the civil war.”

In the 1954 Chinese constitution, the Communist authorities emphasized in the strongest terms their opposition to capitalism and imperialism:

“In the year 1949, after more than a century of heroic struggle, the Chinese people, led by the Communist Party of China, finally won their great victory in the people’s revolution against imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism, and thereby brought to an end the history of the oppression and enslavement they had undergone for so long and founded the People’s Republic of China – a people’s democratic dictatorship … In the last few years our people have successfully carried out the reform of the agrarian system, resistance to United States aggression and aid to Korea, the suppression of counter-revolutionaries, the rehabilitation of the national economy, and other large-scale struggles, thereby preparing the necessary conditions for planned economic construction and the gradual transition to a socialist society.”

The reference to the Korean war is particularly important because it showed the willingness and the ability of the Chinese Communist government to fight the US and its allies.

The British government was wary of the dangers of a conflict with China and the Communist bloc. Consequently, the so-called “Young Plan” for the self-government of Hong Kong was never implemented. London as well as the colonial government feared the instability that such a momentous change would bring at a time when relations with China were becoming increasingly complicated. On 22 October 1952 the UK Secretary of State Oliver Lyttleton announced in the House of Commons that the time was inopportune for constitutional change in Hong Kong. This view was repeated by the new Governor, Alexander Grantham, in an address to the Hong Kong Legislative Council on the very same day (ibid., pp. 195-198).

The Hong Kong government found itself compelled to always take into consideration Beijing’s views. As Hong Kong Governor Sir David Trench put it: “Every single policy – social, political or economic – is colored by China’s nearness, China’s attitudes, and the consequent difficulty of being certain of an assured future” (quoted in: Ming Sing, Hong Kong’s Tortuous Democratization, 2004, chapter 3).

The British government feared that any step towards Hong Kong’s democratization would be viewed by Beijing as a challenge, as the beginning of a process of decolonization that would lead to Hong Kong’s independence. Besides, British authorities believed that popular elections might destabilize the colony by giving institutional representation to pro-PRC and pro-ROC forces, which would create a civil war-like struggle between the two factions.

As Andrew Christopher Stuart, head of the Foreign Office’s Hong Kong and Indian Ocean Department, wrote in 1974: “[I]f any form of elections for the new seats was introduced, the proposals might look to the Chinese like a step towards self-government and independence … A larger [elected] membership … would be … particularly undesirable if some of the Members regarded themselves as representing Peking and some Taiwan” (quoted in: Lui Tai-lok, ‘Flying MPs’ and political change in a colonial setting. Political reform under MacLehose’s governorship of Hong Kong, in: Michael H. K. Ng, John D Wong (ed.), Civil Unrest and Governance in Hong Kong. Law and Order in Historical and Cultural Perspectives, 2017, chapter 5).

Despite its bellicose rhetoric, the Communist government did not view the Hong Kong issue as a priority to be resolved in the short-term. On the one hand, Beijing’s policy may resemble that of Chiang Kai-shek’s. For instance, an article published in 1961 on the People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, stated that the Hong Kong issue “would be settled peacefully through negotiations” when the conditions were “ripe” (see Tim Summers, China’s Hong Kong, 2020, chapter 1).

On the other hand, Communist China’s rationale for preserving Hong Kong’s status resulted from the specific circumstances of the Cold War. Hong Kong was beneficial to China in terms of economic relations and diplomatic activities. Due to China’s poor economic conditions, exports to Hong Kong accounted for an important part of its revenues. Moreover, remittances and parcels containing food, clothes and other items by Hong Kong Chinese to relatives in China had an estimated worth of US$2.4 billion between 1950 and 1976. Hong Kong visitors to China further contributed US$973 million to the Chinese economy between 1961 and 1976. Apart from economic reasons, Hong Kong was useful to China because it was a gateway to the Western world, which allowed Beijing to gather intelligence, cultivate diplomatic connections and conduct external propaganda (Sing 2004, chapter 3).

Although China tolerated Britain’s presence in Hong Kong, it does not mean that it did not try to undermine the colonial government. Not only did Beijing try to build an anti-British united front in Hong Kong, but during the Cultural Revolution it also fomented riots and terrorist attacks, as we shall see below. The erratic, unpredictable nature of Mao’s regime was a constant destabilizing factor in Hong Kong-British-China relations.


2.2. Social issues and the 1966-67 riots

Another major consequence of the Chinese civil war and the founding of the PRC was the influx of millions of immigrants from China to Hong Kong, who were fleeing turmoil, poverty and political persecution.

In 1945 Hong Kong’s population numbered about 600,000 people. A contemporary United Nations report estimated that between 1945 and 1949, 1,285,000 million migrants from China arrived in Hong Kong. As a result, by 1950 the population had risen to 2 million, by 1955 to 2.5 million. Hong Kong’s population continued to grow throughout the colonial period. In 1967 the city had 3.9 million people, in 1990 the figure was 5.7 million. As late as 1961, 33% of the workforce had arrived after 1949 (Hong Kong Digest of Statistics, 1967, p. 14; Hong Kong Digest of Statistics, 1997, p. 3; Tsang 2004, p. 167; Leung 1997, pp. 9-7).

The population surge caused social problems such as a severe housing crisis and poverty among unskilled workers. A 1957-1958 government report stated:

“The majority of the working population in Hong Kong are wage earners … The ingress of over 700,000 refugees from mainland China since 1949 has had a marked effect on the labour situation in the Colony, the chief characteristic of which is an excess of unskilled labour. Previously the ebb and flow of the working population was closely aligned to the economic opportunities in Hong Kong and China. The refugees, however, have shown no desire to return to the mainland, even though Hong Kong is unable to offer to all the prospect of earning a reasonable living” (Annual Report, 1957-58, pp. 60-61, quoted in: David Faure (ed.), A Documentary History of Hong Kong Society, 1997, p. 249).

Despite the post-war economic take-off, the anachronistic colonial Hong Kong government was unable to build consensus among a large Chinese immigrant population ruled by a small elite made up of colonial officials, Chinese and Western tycoons. Moreover, the business community resisted attempts to increase government spending to provide welfare and to pass legislation to improve working conditions.

On 30 March 1949 Sir Lo Man-kam, a Chinese member of the Legislative Council, gave a speech in the Council opposing a government-funded housing policy:

“It is suggested that Government should build houses for members of the public … I confess I cannot follow this argument … On what principle are the members of the public to be chosen for the honour of being Government tenants? Then what is the rent to be charged? … If … the rent is so to be fixed as to include an element of subsidy, then all I can say is I do not see why the taxpayers who include the humblest artisan who smokes a few cigarettes should be made to pay this subsidy!” (quoted in: ibid., p. 251)

The deep chasm between people and government culminated in the 1966-67 riots, which were a turning point in the history of British Hong Kong.

The 1966 riots, called “Kowloon disturbances” by the British colonial authorities at the time, were triggered by a seemingly unremarkable event. In October 1965 the Star Ferry Company applied to the government for a fare increase in the cross-harbour route between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, which was the major means of transportation between the two sides of Victoria Harbour. Apart from a small fare increase for monthly tickets in August 1951, the company had not raised its fares since 1946. The proposal angered the Hong Kong public, mainly because rising living costs, especially recent increases in school fees and water charges, had already been a source of discontent.

The companies providing those services were the focus of criticism. They were accused of amassing huge profits at the expense of consumers. On 12 January 1966, a petition signed by more than 155,000 people was handed to the government. To no avail. The government approved the fare increase, but limited it to a 5 cent rise for first-class tickets costing between 20 and 25 cents; it also permitted an increase of HK$2 for monthly tickets. The reasoning behind the government’s decision was that those who could not afford the extra 5 cent could simply buy a second-class ticket. Meanwhile, proposals for tax increases on petrol, tobacco, vehicle licensing, profits and higher parking fees exacerbated the already tense situation, showing how detached from the public the government was.

On 4 April 1966, a young man named So Sau Chung went to the Star Ferry pier and began a hunger strike in protest. His actions attracted not only media attention but also a growing number of supporters. The following day he was warned by the police that if he did not leave he would be arrested for obstruction. When he refused, he was detained. Demonstrators went to Government House to petition the Governor to release him, but they were dispersed by the police. The demonstrations soon turned into riots, scuffles between protesters and police, property damage, and the deployment of the military to assist the police. During the duration of the riots from April 6 to April 8, a total of 1,465 people were arrested (see: Ian Scott, Political Change and the Crisis of Legitimacy in Hong Kong, 1989, p. 84; Carol Jones, Jon Vagg, Criminal Justice in Hong Kong, 2016, chapter 17; Gary Ka-wai Cheung, Hong Kong’s Watershed: The 1967 Riots, 2009, p. 11).

The government appointed a Commission of Inquiry which produced a 167-page report backed by over 2,000 pages of testimony. It was one of the first attempts by the authorities to understand the causes of popular discontent (Scott 1989, p. 87). The Commission drew from its inquiry three main conclusions: 1) that there was a lack of communication between the government and the public, which was exacerbated by the fact that the majority of Hong Kongers spoke Cantonese, while the official language was English; 2) that the government was over-centralized and the public had no ready access to officers they could refer to in order to voice their concerns; 3) that “working conditions still leave room for improvement and that long hours spent at unrewarding jobs can be a powerful stimulus in a quest for excitement which often leads to anti-social behaviour” (ibid., pp. 92-93).

Ian C. Jarvie, writing shortly after the riots had taken place, partly criticized the conclusions of the Commission. He regarded the upheaval as the result of a generation gap between the older refugee generation and a new generation who had grown up in Hong Kong. While those who had come to Hong Kong in the 1940s and 1950s were content with the colony’s stability and were willing to accept hardships, the younger generation had higher expectations for themselves, and they had also a different cultural and social framework as they had never lived in China but only knew Hong Kong’s colonial society. Jarvie explained:

“Hong Kong’s population consists largely of immigrants from the countryside of Kwangtung [=Guangdong] province – a somewhat backward and socially rather conservative area. These peasant peoples have come to Hong Kong and adapted themselves to the conditions of a fast-moving port and industrial city … These young adults raised entirely in Hong Kong are now beginning to make their mark on society. They are young people who have no personal memories of bad times in China, who have been brought up in attenuated and dispersed families, in overcrowded tenements, who know only urban and industrial surroundings, who have been educated in heavily westernized schools, and exposed to a wealth of western cultural influence. Hong Kong is to them a home, not a haven of refuge, and they judge it by different standards than their refugee parents. Especially do they match it to the worlds portrayed on TV, in comics, movies and advertisements. They are experiencing a revolution of rising expectations; they expect more than their parents and are thus more frustrated than their parents. Stability and lack of disaster are not for them enough” (Ian C. Jarvie, A Postscript on Riots and the Future of Hong Kong, in: Ian C. Jarvie, Joseph Agassi, Hong Kong: A Society in Transition, 1968, p. 363).

A similar assessment was made by Ian Scott in the late 1980s:

“[A] strictly economic explanation of the riots does not seem to be supported by the facts. Very few of those convicted were unemployed … and, since most had only recently joined the workforce, it was to be expected that they would not be earning very much. If poverty is interpreted more widely, however, then underlying, unarticulated grievances may well have been the source of the riots. The economic, political and social structure of colonial Hong Kong had produced a grey industrial world in which sixty- to seventy-hour working weeks, often in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, overcrowding and limited prospects of upward mobility were the norm for young males. They did not have the optimism about their economic future or even the cultural values which had carried their fathers through the difficult years of the 1940s and 1950s …” (Scott 1989, p. 89).

More recent scholarship has largely agreed with those earlier analyses. Mathews, Ma and Lui (2008) explained:

“[T]he larger significance of these disturbances lies in the fact that they symbolized the emergence of a new local generation ready to express their hopes and frustrations, as their immigrant elders had not …The disturbances symbolize the first major spontaneous attempt by the post-war baby-boomers to openly express their discontents. Many of them were critical of colonialism … Their demands were diffuse; but what was evident in their demands was their general sense of uneasiness within the Hong Kong colonial world in which they had been born and raised” (Gordon Mathews, Eric Kit-wai Ma, and Tai-lok Lui, Hong Kong, China. Learning to belong to a nation, 2008, p. 32).

Only one year after the 1966 disturbances, Hong Kong was rocked by another series of riots. But while the 1966 protests had been spontaneous and uncoordinated, the 1967 events were orchestrated by a pro-Beijing Communist faction inspired by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

The immediate cause of the 1967 riots was a labour dispute which started in April at a factory of the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works owned by business tycoon Li Ka-shing. The company had a plant on Belcher Street, in Western District, and another one in San Po Kong, Kowloon, employing 421 and 686 workers respectively. On April 13 the factory management announced harsher working conditions. For instance, instead of giving a 10 cent salary bonus to workers who produced HK$120 worth of output within 15 days, the threshold was raised to HK$160. Those who were unable to produce HK$160 worth of output within two consecutive 15-day periods would be dismissed. Moreover, workers would not be paid while machines were being repaired after breaking down, and they were not allowed to take leave.

The workers were angered by the new conditions and put forward a list of demands to the management, including the abolition of the conditions imposed on April 13, the payment of wages while machines were under repair, and no dismissals without good reason. The management did not respond to the demands. On April 28 the company fired 92 workers, and another 566 workers the next day. On May 4 workers protested outside the San Po Kong factory, forced their way into the building and demanded talk with the management. The intervention of the police led to scuffles and arrests over the following days (see Cheung 2009, pp. 24-25; Tsang 2004, p. 183).

In a memorandum from 24 May 1967, the UK Secretary for Commonwealth Affairs Herbert Bowden said that “the present troubles in Hong Kong had their origin in a labour dispute, which was not handled wisely by management in its early stage, somewhat provocatively. It was after a lockout and wholesale dismissal that the first scuffles occurred, outside of the concerned factories” (ibid., p. 29).

However, a later official Hong Kong government report claimed that the April incident and previous labour disputes had been masterminded by the Communists:

“The tactics employed were identical in each case. Workers were intimidated and threatened with physical violence. Attempts to settle the disputes were deliberately frustrated by the injection of political issues, expressed in the form of demands which were required to be accepted ‘unconditionally’. These demands were followed by a succession of rowdy demonstrations, designed to intimidate the management, in which slogans and extracts from The Thoughts of Mao Tse Tung were chanted in unison” (quoted in: Scott 1989, p. 100).

Regardless of whether the protests had been initiated by Communists or not, they soon began to be politicized by the pro-Beijing leftist camp. On May 8 the pro-Communist Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) issued a statement claiming that the police intervention during the labour dispute “occurred against the backdrop of US imperialism stepped up using Hong Kong as a military base to invade Vietnam and the various anti-China activities organized by imperialism, revisionism and counter-revolution. The incident was obviously orchestrated by Hong Kong British authorities.” The FTU alleged that the British authorities had been conspiring with “elements close to the US and Chiang Kai-shek”. The FTU stated that it represented “the Chinese workers in the great era of Mao Zedong” and that “the people armed with Mao Zedong Thought are never scared of any kind of suppression” (ibid. p. 30).

During the Star Ferry riots of 1966, which happened prior to the launch of the Cultural Revolution, the pro-Communist camp had been silent, even siding with the British administration. But a year later, the protests were seized upon to start a campaign against the colonial government. The campaign was directed by the Hong Kong and Macau Work Committee, which was “the local branch of the CCP that existed clandestinely, as Hong Kong banned foreign political parties in 1949”, and “operated in public under the guise of the Xinhua News Agency”, which was directly answerable to the Communist government in Beijing (Tsang 2004, p. 183).

The Work Committee was watching closely the events in China, but during the chaos and turmoil of the Maoist upheaval the news and instructions that came from Beijing seemed confusing and contradictory. Even major political figures of the CCP like Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi had become targets of criticism by the Maoist radical faction. The members of the Work Committee, fearing for their future, launched their own version of the Cultural Revolution in order to prove their loyalty to Mao and avoid the risk of being purged. Once the Work Committee had taken action, more moderate leaders in Beijing such as Zhou Enlai had to reluctantly endorse it or else they might have been accused of not being revolutionary enough (ibid., p. 185).

On May 15, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing released a statement demanding that the British government accept the demands of Chinese workers, “stop all fascist measures”, punish those responsible for the “atrocities”, apologize to and compensate Chinese workers (Scott 1989, p. 100).

A June 3 editorial on the Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily urged the Hong Kong Chinese to “smash the reactionary rule of the Hong Kong British authorities”. They called a general strike and then a four-day strike by hawkers and food stall owners. The Hong Kong government resolutely resisted any attempt to overthrow it, and the leftists began to carry out terrorist attacks, planting bombs in the city and causing chaos that threatened the colony’s stability (Gary Ka-Wai Cheung, How the 1967 riots changed Hong Kong’s political landscape, with the repercussions felt today, in: Ng, Wong 2017, chapter 4).

Though the Hong Kong police maintained a strategy of restraint, it used tear gas, baton charges, and on rare occasions firearms, to contain and disperse rioters. When one suspect died in police custody, three police officers were charged and tried in a court of law. Meanwhile, the Communist agitators became increasingly radical.

They planted a total of 1,420 explosive devices, indiscriminately targeting civilians. Among their targets were a Wan Chai tram, the Ocean Terminal shopping centre, a police station and the Salvation Army headquarters. They circulated a list of prominent people who were to be assassinated. After the list was discovered, Lam Bun, a famous anti-communist radio commentator, and his cousin, were doused in petrol and burnt. 51 people were killed during the riots, including 15 people killed by bomb explosions, 10 policemen, an Army Sergeant and a fire services officer (Scott 1989, p. 103; Tsang 2004, p. 187).

The violence and radical rhetoric of the Communists backfired. While the public had initially sympathized with the cause of labour rights and opposition to the government, the riots strengthened the population’s anti-Communist sentiment, led them to side with the colonial government, and marginalized the leftists. After the riots, the Hong Kong people began to cherish the stability and safety of the colony, where they were sheltered from the violence and extremism of the Cultural Revolution (see Cheung 2017). As Ian Scott put it:

“There can be little doubt that by December 1967 the communists had lost whatever public sympathy the labour disputes had initially generated. Concern about working conditions in public circles and in the press was soon dissipated by the riots, by the strikes and work stoppages, and by the results of indiscriminate bombing. Ironically, in the light of communist objectives, the end-result of the disturbances was to increase the support for, and the legitimacy of, the existing order. Faced with a choice between communism of a Cultural Revolution variety and the, as yet, unreformed colonial capitalist state, most people chose to side with the devil they knew” (Scott 1989, p. 104).

The 1966-67 riots were a watershed moment in Hong Kong’s history. On the one hand, they prompted the government to initiate a series of reforms that would make it more responsive to popular needs and public opinion. On the other, they led to the emerging of a distinct Hong Kong identity based on the rejection of the Chinese Communist regime, the defence of civil liberties, pride in the city’s achievements and a global outlook as a unique bridge between East and West.

One of the unintended consequences of the riots was that they pushed the government to implement social reforms and the business community, which had hitherto been opposed to progressive policies, to accept them for the sake of social and political stability. In 1967 the government reduced the maximum working hours for women and young people to 57 hours a week, and in 1971 they were reduced to 48 hours per week. In 1968 the Employment Ordinance was passed to regulate the termination of contracts and wage protection, and later it was amended to include maternity leave. The City District Officer scheme was implemented in January 1968, to maintain contact with the public, receive complaints, assess the effect of government policies (Cheung 2017). Investment in infrastructure, education, welfare and housing changed the face of the colony, bringing about a new, consensus-based relationship between the colonial government and the people.


2.3. Decolonization and Loss of Global Power

The third factor that shaped British policy in Hong Kong was decolonization and, more generally, Britain’s relative loss of power on the global stage, especially in relation with China.

When Britain seized Hong Kong Island in 1841, its economic, military and technological superiority came as a shock to the Chinese elite. The empire had already been in decline due to social and economic issues, as well as due to dysfunction within the ruling Qing dynasty. Its difficulties were compounded by the aggression at the hands of Britain, which had achieved immense wealth and power thanks to global trade and the industrial revolution (see William T. Rowe, China’s Last Empire. The Great Qing, 2009, chapter 6).

By the end of the Second World War, however, the situation had changed completely. Britain was no longer the world’s largest industrial economy, nor was it the major global superpower. The rise of the US and the Soviet Union, the emergence of anti-colonial nationalist movements throughout Africa and Asia, some of which were supported by Moscow, as well as Britain’s relative economic decline, made its 19th century “gunboat diplomacy” a thing of the remote past. As Philippa Levine explained:

“While Britain’s palpable decline in economic and political muscle was not brought about solely by the hardships and costs of war, the war escalated and intensified a trend that had long been apparent in the UK. Britain’s economy and industries had felt the pressure of stiff competition throughout the 20th century, but it was still possible between the two world wars for Britain to see itself as a major figure on the world stage. After 1945 that image was a much harder sell, and the mantle of power, certainly in the political and economic realms, shifted across the Atlantic ocean to the United States… Britain, heavily reliant on infusions of American cash to save its ailing economy, and itself identified with the exploitation of colonial resources (both labour and goods), was inevitably allied with the USA, while many of its colonies found in the USSR a generous benefactor of education, weaponry and advice in their campaigns for independence … Britain’s economic woes made her position an acutely difficult one. Reliant on American money and fearful of communism, saddled with the costs of running an increasingly fractious Empire, anxious to alleviate economic hardships and sustain popular welfare reforms at home, Labour and Conservative governments alike wrestled with whether the Empire was worth the money” (Philippa Levine, The British Empire. Sunrise to Sunset, 2020, chapter 11).

Britain’s loss of power in the Far East was made evident by the symbolic Amethyst incident.

In April 1949 the British guard ship in Nanjing was the HMS Consort, which was due to be relieved by another ship coming up from Shanghai, the HMS Amethyst. Yet during its voyage to Nanjing, artillery units of the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) opened fire on the Amethyst. By 11 a.m. the ship had been heavily damaged, 22 British sailors had been killed and another 31 had been wounded. When the Consort sailed off from Nanjing to rescue the Amethyst, the Chinese shelled it and repelled it (Mark Felton, China Station: The British Military in the Middle Kingdom, 1839–1997, 2013, chapter 9).

The incident caused tensions between London and the Chinese Communist authorities. On 26 April 1949 Winston Churchill pressured the British government in the House of Commons to retaliate against the Communists:

“How is it that at this time we have not got in Chinese waters one aircraft carrier, if not two, capable of affording protection to our nationals who may be increasingly involved in peril and misfortune, and capable of affording that protection in the only way which is understood by those who are attacking us, murdering us and insulting us, namely, by effective power of retaliation?”

On 30 April the spokesman of the General Headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army issued a statement, drafted by Mao himself, condemning Churchill and Prime Minister Attlee and falsely claiming that the British had opened fire first:

“We denounce the preposterous statement of the warmonger Churchill. In the British House of Commons on April 26, Churchill demanded that the British government should send two aircraft carriers to the Far East for “effective power of retaliation”. What are you “retaliating” for, Mr. Churchill? British warships together with Kuomintang warships intruded into the defence area of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and fired on the People’s Liberation Army, causing no less than 252 casualties among our loyal and gallant fighters. Since the British have trespassed on Chinese territory and committed so great a crime, the People’s Liberation Army has good reason to demand that the British government admit its wrongdoing, apologize and make compensation. Isn’t this what you should do, instead of dispatching forces to China to “retaliate” against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army? Prime Minister Attlee’s statement is also wrong. Britain, he said, has the right to send her warships into China’s Yangtse River. The Yangtse is an inland waterway of China. What right have you British to send in your warships? You have no such right. The Chinese people will defend their territory and sovereignty and absolutely will not permit encroachment by foreign governments.”

During the Cold War, Communist China’s decisive intervention in the Korean War as well as its successful nuclear bomb test on 16 October 1964 consolidated its position as a great power to be reckoned with. When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Beijing in September 1982, 84 years after Britain had compelled imperial China to grant it the 99-year lease of the New Territories, she was in no position to dictate terms as her predecessors had done decades earlier.

Her aim was to persuade the Chinese to exchange sovereignty over the island of Hong Kong for continued British administration of the entire colony. The Chinese categorically refused, stating that they would recover Hong Kong in 1997 and no later. In her memoirs, Thatcher recounts her conversation with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on 23 September:

“Mr Deng was known as a realist, but on this occasion he was obdurate. He reiterated that the Chinese were not prepared to discuss sovereignty. He said that the decision that Hong Kong would return to Chinese sovereignty need not be announced now, but that in one or two years’ time the Chinese Government would formally announce their decision to recover it. At one point he said that the Chinese could walk in and take Hong Kong later today if they wanted to. I retorted that they could indeed do so, I could not stop them, but this would bring about Hong Kong’s collapse. The world would then see what followed a change from British to Chinese rule” (Margaret Thatcher, The Autobiography, 2013, chapter 21).


3. Economic Miracle and Government Reform – The Golden Age of Hong Kong

3.1. The Post-war Economic Boom

After the Second World War the Hong Kong economy rapidly recovered thanks to its status as an entrepôt for China. But the founding of the Communist regime in China and the outbreak of the Korean War suddenly undermined Hong Kong’s major source of economic activity. When the United Nations imposed an embargo on exports to China, Hong Kong’s total trade volume dropped dramatically. Trade with China shrank from HK$1.6 billion in 1951 to HK$114 million in 1959. Imports from China, on the other hand, remained stable because the colony, due to lack of land and resources, relied on imports of foods and raw materials from China. These imports were an important source of foreign exchange for the Communist regime (Y.F. Luk, Hong Kong’s Economic And Financial Future, 1995, chapter 2).

The decline of Hong Kong’s entrepôt trade, combined with a number of other factors, brought about the restructuring of the Hong Kong’s economy after 1950.

The arrival of millions of immigrants from southern China provided an enormous source of cheap labour. But not all immigrants came from poor social backgrounds. Following the founding of the Communist regime in Beijing, many Chinese businessmen, too, fled to Hong Kong. The majority of the entrepreneurs came from Shanghai, China’s leading manufacturing centre. They brought with them skills, knowhow and a large amount of capital, estimated at HK$60 billion just for the years between 1946 and 1948 (Luk 1995, chapter 2; Leung 1996, pp. 4-7).

As Hong Kong’s economy shifted from entrepôt hub to global manufacturing centre, its share of domestic exports increased while that of reexports diminished. Textiles were Hong Kong’s major exports, accounting for 52.9% of the total in 1959. Export restrictions imposed by other countries as well as competition from other East Asian economies pushed Hong Kong companies to diversify production, so that industries like plastics, footwear, toys, watches, clocks and electronics became significant export items (Luk 1995, chapter 2).

Labour was abundantly available and it remained cheap because the government was reluctant to enact labour protection laws and provide welfare benefits. There was no minimum wage, no unemployment insurance and no old age pension. The labour movement was negligible, with only 6.5% of manufacturing workers being members of trade unions in 1966. The banking sector and the cargo port infrastructure established by the British were already highly developed, which facilitated the growth of an export-oriented manufacturing sector. Moreover, the managerial and organizational skills required for the entrepôt trade could be easily redirected towards the new industrial economy (Ronald Hsia, Laurence Chau, Industrialisation, Employment and Income Distribution. A Case Study of Hong Kong, 1978, chapter 1).

The Hong Kong manufacturing sector was highly flexible, dominated by small businesses, and focused on the production of light industrial goods that employed low-skilled labour and required simple machines. A government census estimated that in 1971, 91% of manufacturing firms employed fewer than fifty workers, accounting for 41% of the labour force and producing 27% of Hong Kong’s total industrial output.

Many Hong Kong manufacturers pursued a short-term strategy and thus were disinclined to make large investments in research, development and labour. The reason lies on the one hand in the political turmoil and uncertainty in Hong Kong and China, and on the other hand in their status as recent immigrants. Consequently, most industries tended to employ low-skilled and semi-skilled workers, hired for the short term, paid by piece rate, daily rate or monthly rate, and easily dismissed with short notice (ibid.).

Hong Kong’s economy grew by an average annual rate of 9.1% between 1955 and 1970, while GDP per capita rose by 5.4% per year during the same period. In 1971, Hong Kong’s per capita income was estimated at US$700 (ibid., chapter 1, 5; Edward K. Y. Chen, Hyper-growth in Asian Economies? A Comparative Study of Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, 1979, p. 10).

Milton E. Berger, Director of the United States Trade Mission that visited Hong Kong between 1 and 7 November 1963, described the economic development of the city thus:

“What were the conditions the Mission found in Hong Kong? There was a great population pressure swollen by the influx of refugees from mainland China. There was an absence of natural resources, save a fine harbor and the most valuable resource of all – energetic, intelligent people. There was internal political stability and respect for law despite uncertainty over the long-term future. There was a Government administered wisely and with compassion for the plight of the homeless and the unemployed. There was the fabric of a highly developed commercial community … There was an almost unbelievable surge into industrialization necessitated by the diminishing significance of transshipment trade and the need to provide employment for the population spurt. There were vast construction projects, rivalling the largest in America and Europe – private commercial and residential construction on a massive basis, Government-supported and private housing projects of most impressive proportions, and the construction of factories, particularly on industrial estates on reclaimed land” (United States Marketing and Industrial Development Mission to Hong Kong, Report of the 1963 Trade Mission to Hong Kong, 1963, p.4).

Despite Hong Kong’s impressive economic growth and low unemployment, there were widespread social issues which, as we have noticed previously, are believed to have contributed to the 1966-67 riots. The most pressing issues were the dramatic shortage of decent housing, low wages and work insecurity, lack of social welfare, healthcare and education.

But in the aftermath of the riots, the Hong Kong government became more proactive and more responsive to the needs of the public. It was only in the last 27 years of British rule that Hong Kong society became affluent, that a new truly local identity was formed, and that the relationship between government and people shifted towards a consensus-based, paternalistic, and increasingly inclusive model.

3.2. Government Reform, Welfare State and Benevolent Paternalism

In the 1970s and 1980s, political and economic changes deeply transformed Hong Kong, laying the foundations for the society we have known in our own lifetime until the 2020 National Security Law opened a new chapter in its history. These changes can be attributed to four major phenomena of this era:

  1. The government redefined its role, moving from a laissez-faire policy to a more proactive approach by funding large housing and infrastructure projects, as well as by building a basic welfare state;
  2. The British authorities improved their image by cracking down on corruption and by becoming more responsive to the needs of the public;
  3. A new Hong Kong identity emerged;
  4. Hong Kong’s economy became more affluent, less reliant on industry and increasingly interconnected with China.

According to historian Steve Tsang, the colonial administration paradoxically succeeded in creating the best possible government in the Chinese tradition. The British authorities did not do so by design, but because of a variety of circumstances. From the start of the colonial period the government fulfilled some of the requirements for good governance from a Chinese perspective, i.e. it was efficient, non-intrusive, and fair (Tsang 2004, p. 197).

This Chinese notion of good governance dates back to the fall of the Qin Dynasty in 206 BC, when the imperial elites embraced the doctrine known as “nonaction” (無爲, “wuwei”). In order to prevent tyranny on the part of the emperor, as it had been the case during the reign of Qin, the size of government was reduced, and the emperor was expected to delegate power to ministers and bureaucrats. As long as the people maintained social order and paid taxes, the state did not interfere with the affairs of local communities. Out of necessity, the British adopted a similar light touch approach in Hong Kong.

But it was after the 1966-67 riots that the British government implemented social policies and administrative reforms that made it appear benevolent and honest in the eyes of the Chinese population. As Steve Tsang explained:

“The British did not set out to fulfil this Chinese aspiration. The method of delivering it, as prescribed by Confucius and his disciples over two millennia, namely the setting up of a government composed of Confucian gentlemen-officials, was irrelevant to the British. Nonetheless, building on the basis of its own record and responding steadily to changes after 1945, the government produced a paradox. While it remained an essentially British colonial administration, it also fulfilled the basic conditions for such a government, namely, efficiency, fairness, honesty, benevolent paternalism, and non-intrusion into the lives of ordinary people… [H]onesty and benevolent paternalism, were not really met until the end of the 1970s” (Tsang 2004, pp 197-198).

Although the British administration officially pursued a laissez-faire small government policy, the size of government increased steadily after the Second World War due to the influx of immigrants and the need to meet at least some of their basic needs in order to preserve social stability. In the 1950s the size and scope of government expanded at a rate never before seen, and every successive decade after that topped the previous. Although Hong Kong did not become a welfare state like the countries of Northern Europe, it nevertheless developed a basic welfare system capable of providing housing, healthcare, education, and of alleviating poverty (see Tsang 2007, chapter 5).

The first major challenge for the British administration was to provide housing for the rapidly surging population. However, as we have previously seen, the conservative elite, especially the business community, was reluctant to support any ambitious housing construction programme.

But in December 1953 a fire broke out in a refugee squatter hut settlement in Shek Kip Mei, which made 50,000 people homeless overnight (Tsang 2004, p. 204). This event allowed the government to overcome resistance and to launch one of its first large-scale housing construction projects.

On 3 March 1954 Governor Grantham explained in an address to the Legislative Council that the housing issue was a priority and the government was determined to act:

“I turn now to our greatest social problem, that is housing, with which is connected resettlement. Practically every civilized country in the world suffers from shortage of low cost housing. We are not unique in this. What makes our difficulties exceptional is the proportion of our total population which is living without proper housing and the fact that such a large percentage is not our own people but the influx of a neighbouring country where thousands more are waiting to pour into housing as fast as, or even faster than, we build them … As regards the size of the problem, it is estimated that at least 350,000 people should be rehoused. It is necessary for me to stress the scarcity of land in Hong Kong … It may mean that we shall have to develop satellite towns outside the urban areas … The legislation to establish the Housing Authority is already in draft form and will, I hope, shortly be presented to this Council. One thing we should bear in mind is that low cost housing either by the Housing Authority or by other organizations which receive financial aid from Government, whether by direct grant or by loan, is subsidized housing. This means that it will compete with private low cost housing” (quoted in: Faure 1997, pp. 252-253).

On the basis of the 1961 population census it was estimated that nearly 1 million people out of the total population of 3.1 million did not have decent housing. About 511,000 people lived in squatter huts and other makeshift structures, 140,000 people lived in bed-spaces, 56,000 on rooftops, 50,000 in shops, garages and staircases, 26,000 in boats and 20,000 on the streets (Judith Agassi, Housing the Needy, in: Jarvie, Agassi 1968, p. 247).

By 1969, over 1.5 million people out of a total population of about 4 million lived in government-subsidized housing (Tsang 2004, p. 199). These figures show that the colonial administration had already expanded the scope of its intervention in the economy compared with the pre-war era. However, it was only after the 1966-67 riots and the spectre of Communist-led social upheavals that the government decided to become more proactive and invest more ambitiously in the infrastructure and services needed to improve living standards.

The appointment of Sir Murray MacLehose as Governor in November 1971 ushered in a decade of political stability and unprecedented economic prosperity (Scott 1989, p. 126). The so-called “MacLehose decade” (1971-1982) was fondly remembered by many Hong Kongers as a time of positive social and political change. The Governor was widely regarded as a benevolent leader who greatly improved the governance of Hong Kong (see Lui 2017).

One of the central issues which MacLehose viewed as a priority during his tenure was housing. In a speech in the Legislative Council on 18 October 1972 he outlined the main principles of his political agenda:

“I now turn to housing. There is no field in which Hong Kong’s pressure of people has produced acuter problems or one in which the Government’s response has been so vigorous or received such international acclaim. 1.6 million people have been housed at low rents in Government housing estates … But in spite of this effort the problem still remains. 300,000 people still live in squatter huts or temporary housing. Many units in resettlement estates are badly overcrowded, or have no separate wash places or lavatories. It is estimated that a further 310,000 people would need rehousing … The Housing Board and the Government departments concerned have therefore drawn up a plan. For planning purposes a target time is necessary, if only because any such plan must also provide for the annual natural growth of population. The target taken, which I repeat is as a basis for calculation, is 10 years and has as its objective to build on such a scale that, with the contribution of the private sector, there will be sufficient permanent self-contained accommodation in a reasonable environment for every inhabitant of Hong Kong. Such a target, if achieved, would lead to the virtual disappearance of squatter areas, eliminate overcrowding and sharing in both private and public housing …”

The government’s plan aimed at building 180,000 units per year in order to house 1.8 million people by 1982. Although the plan fell short of its stated goals, by mid-1994, 41.9% of the total population lived in public housing apartments provided by the Housing Authority at below market rental prices (Scott 1989, pp. 154-155; Luk 1995, chapter 2). The drive for the construction of satellite towns and high-rise housing projects not only improved people’s housing standards, but it visibly reshaped the face of many residential and formerly rural areas that acquired their now so iconic skyline.

The government expanded labour regulation and welfare, building on previous reforms. In 1968, in the aftermath of the riots, the Employment Ordinance, which regulated individual contracts of employment, protection of wages and set minimum labour standards, had already been enacted. The MacLehose administration passed the Employee’s Compensation Ordinance and a series of safety regulations for the industrial sector. It further set up a Labour Tribunal to settle disputes between empoyers and workers. In 1975, the Labour Relations Ordinance was passed to allow the Labour Department or government-appointed agents to act as mediators in labour disputes (Ng Sek-Hong, Hong Kong Labour Law in Retrospect, in: Lee Pui-tak, Hong Kong Reintegrating with China: Political, Cultural and Social Dimensions, 2001, pp. 134-136).

Prior to the 1970s the British authorities rejected the idea of a comprehensive welfare system, instead appealing to traditional Chinese Confucian family ideology. The White Paper on Social Welfare published in 1965 for instance urged people to seek financial assistance from relatives (Kwong-leung Tang, Social Welfare Development in East Asia, 2001, p. 123).

The colonial administration’s attitude radically changed in the MacLehose years. In 1973 the government published the first Five-Year Plan For Social Welfare. The linchpin of Hong Kong’s welfare assistance was introduced in the form of the Social Security Allowance (SSA) and the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA). The SSA comprised allowances for old age and disability, while the CSSA provided a social safety net for individuals with no other means of support. Although the Hong Kong government and society at large discouraged welfare, which was viewed with a stigma by proponents of both British laissez-faire and traditional Chinese concepts of familism and self-reliance, and although the state always priotitized a prudent fiscal policy, nevertheless the welfare system greatly expanded throughout the 1970s and 1980s (Tang 2001, pp. 123-125; Joe C.B. Leung, Workfare in Hong Kong, in: Chak Kwan Chan, Kinglun Ngok, Welfare Reform in East Asia. Towards Workfare, 2011, chapter 3).

The number of families receiving public assistance allowances from the government grew from 5,148 in 1967-1968 to 48,917 in 1976-1977. In 1971 public assistance was converted from the provision of cooked meals or rice to a cash assistance scheme. Cases of persons receiving disability and infirmity allowances, which were introduced in 1973-74, grew from 42,540 that same year to 72,437 in 1976-77 (Hong Kong Annual Digest of Statistics, 1978, p. 195).

MacLehose further launched reforms of the government which improved its efficiency, although they were limited in scope and never included policies for democratization. In 1972 the new Governor took the unusual and at the time controversial step of hiring outside consultants from the private McKinsey company to examine the Hong Kong civil service and propose improvements. The proposals included “standardising departmental submissions for more resources, delegating authority to departments, expanding the applications of computers and providing for more effective top-level management for the civil service”. The government hired more civil servants in order to cope with the new policy requirements that demanded greater complexity. The civil service personnel rose from 94,816 in 1972-73 to 126,489 in 1978-79 and 168,298 in 1982-83 (Scott 1989, pp. 135-139).

These changes had a positive effect on governance, though their technical nature might not have resonated with the public. Much more important for the improvement of the colonial administration’s image was MacLehose’s fight against corruption, which had become an endemic problem and undermined people’s trust in the government.

In October 1973, MacLehose announced in the Legislative Council his decision to set up an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which could receive complaints of alleged corruption, investigate them, advise the government and enlist public support in the fight against corruption. Between February and December 1974, the ICAC received 3,189 complaints, 1,443 of which regarded cases of police corruption. In 1977, 272 persons were investigated and 145 of them were convicted. In the so-called “Tsim Sha Tsui conspiracy case” 22 police officers were charged with obstruction of justice by accepting bribes from illegal establishments, and ten of them were convicted (ibid., pp. 148-152).

After the 1960s riots the government reformed the local administration in order to enhance its communication with the public. As mentioned before, in 1968 the City District Offices (CDO) were set up for the purpose of strengthening the colonial state’s ties with the community. The CDOs were top-to-bottom institutions that were designed to mobilize local support for official policies, explain them to the public and seek input from ordinary citizens. Similar schemes included the Community Involvement Plan in the early 1970s and the Mutual Aid Committees (MAC), established in 1973 in privately-owned multi-storey residential buildings (ibid., pp. 140-143).

Apart from administrative and welfare reforms, MacLehose also promoted investment in infrastructure, particularly in the highly successful Mass Transit Railway (MTR), which soon became a fundamental part of Hong Kong’s life.

The expansion of the role of government could be easily funded without raising taxes thanks to Hong Kong’s remarkable economic growth, which averaged 9% per year from 1972 to 1982 (ibid., p. 128). Meanwhile, per capita GDP (at constant 2010 US$) grew from 6,000 in 1972 to 11,600 in 1982.

Although the Hong Kong government remained essentially an unelected colonial system, it succeeded in improving its image and gaining the support of the local people thanks to economic growth, improved public services and quality of life, efficiency and responsiveness to the public. Moreover, it was stable, guaranteed basic civil liberties, and it interefered as little as possible in the lives of the citizens.

The MacLehose decade was also an era of growing political autonomy. The success of Hong Kong gave the local government and bureaucracy not only the financial self-reliance, but also the prestige that it needed to act with minimal interference from London (see Scott 1989, pp. 165-166). Although the Governor was appointed by the Parliament in the UK, nevertheless Hong Kong functioned like a quasi-independent country. We shall argue that the geographical distance from the UK, the small size of Hong Kong, and the increased responsiveness of the colonial administration to public sentiment were important factors in the development of a unique identity, a distinct political structure and way of life, as well as a desire among the population to preserve their autonomy from outside interference.

The geopolitical situation initially favoured Hong Kong’s autonomy. Britain did not appear interested in the day-to-day administration of the colony. Hong Kong Governor Sir Alexander Grantham believed that the British electorate “didn’t care a brass farthing about Hong Kong”, as he put it in a 1968 interview. Historian Frank Welsh, writing in the early 1990s, opined that Grantham’s assessment was true and had “continued to be so” (Frank Welsh, The History of Hong Kong, 1993, p. 440).

Meanwhile, in the 1970s Communist China was preoccupied with its own domestic turmoil to pay too much attention to Hong Kong. The country was first ravaged by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966 and lasted for about ten years. Afterwards a power struggle erupted within the Communist Party. By 1980, Deng Xiaoping had emerged as the leader of the regime, while the Maoist “Gang of Four” was put on trial (Michael Dillon, China: A Modern History, 2010, chapter 14).

The semi-independent Hong Kong government appeared to have been a satisfactory arrangement for a large number of people in the city. Between the 1970s and 1997, the Hong Kong government gained a moderate to strong level of public support thanks to its “capacity to satisfy public demands for three crucial legitimating bases: prosperity, stability, and civil liberties” (Ming Sing, Hong Kong at the crossroads. Public pressure for democratic reform, in: Ming Sing (ed.), Politics and Government in Hong Kong: Crisis under Chinese sovereignty, 2008, chapter 5).

When the last British Governor, Chris Patten, left Hong Kong in 1997, he enjoyed an approval rating of 60%, higher than that of any post-handover Hong Kong leader at the end of their term. By then, a large number of Hong Kongers, who had grown up or spent a considerable part of their lives in the city, identified with Hong Kong rather than with China. According to a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Programme of the University of Hong Kong (HKUPOP), in 1997 the majority of Hong Kongers identified as “Hongkongers” or “Hongkongers in China” (59.7%), while only a minority (38.7%) identified as “Chinese” or “Chinese in Hong Kong”. Moreover, 44.9% of respondents also claimed to have a “mixed identity”.


4. Hong Kong and China: Economic Integration and the Sino-British Joint Declaration

One of the paradoxes of Hong Kong’s history is that while it was developing into an affluent society with an efficient government and a unique local identity, its economy and politics became more and more inextricably intertwined with China.

Hong Kong’s economy underwent momentous structural changes following the reform and opening up policy initiated by Communist leader Deng Xiaoping. Taking advantage of China’s low labour and land costs, Hong Kong’s entrepreneurs relocated production mainly to neighbouring southern China. This led to the rapid deindustrialization of Hong Kong and the growth of the service sector.

In 1980, manufacturing accounted for 23.7% of Hong Kong’s GDP, but in 1992 it only accounted for 13.7% of GDP. In 1980, 46% of the workforce was employed in manufacturing, but by 1993 it was 20.5%. By 2008 the share of manufacturing in GDP had shrunk to only 2.5%. However, the fundamentals of the economy were strong throughout the last years of colonial rule. Between 1986 and 1996 Hong Kong’s average GDP growth rate was 7.5%, while per capita expenditure increased from US$10,452 in 1986 to US$16,211 in 1996. Unemployment remained low, standing at 1.9% in 1985 and 1.5% in 1996 (Li Kui-Wai, Capitalist Development and Economism in East Asia, 2003, chapter 3; Leung 2011, chapter 3).

In 1991, trade with Hong Kong accounted for 45% of China’s exports and 42% of its imports. Hong Kong enterprises heavily invested in China and were important factors behind its economic development. Hong Kong also served as a financial link between China and the outside world, not only Western countries but also Taiwan (Yun-wing Sung, Economic Integration of Hong Kong and Guangdong in the 1990s, in: Ming K. Chan, Gerard A. Postiglione, The Hong Kong Reader: Passage to Chinese Sovereignty, 1996, chapter 9).

Politically, the shadow of China loomed large, too. As we saw earlier, the New Territories, which constituted around 90% of the British colony, had been leased to Britain by the imperial Chinese government for a period of 99 years. Since the lease would expire in 1997, the British were very conscious that an arrangement needed to be found with Beijing before that date.

On 24 March 1979, MacLehose travelled to the city of Guangzhou on the first official visit to China by a Governor of Hong Kong since the founding of the Communist regime in 1949. As The New York Times wrote:

“China does not recognize Britain’s right to rule Hong Kong and it is still unclear what will happen when the lease on the New Territories section of the colony expires in 1997.”

It appears that the Chinese Communist authorities wanted to improve ties with the British and had no intention of raising the issue of Hong Kong’s future. MacLehose, however, used that occasion to bring up the subject, hoping that the Chinese would agree to quietly allow Britain to continue to administer Hong Kong beyond 1997. He reasoned that Hong Kong was so valuable to Beijing’s modernization efforts that the Chinese leaders could be persuaded to let the status quo continue for the sake of Hong Kong’s economic stability (Tsang 2004, pp. 212-214).

MacLehose’s plan backfired spectacularly. The Chinese were incensed at any hint of continued British administration of Hong Kong. Deng Xiaoping bluntly told the Governor that the PRC would take over Hong Kong:

“It has been our consistent view that the People’s Republic of China has sovereignty over Hong Kong while Hong Kong also has its own special position. A negotiated settlement of the Hong Kong question in the future should be based on the premise that the territory is part of China. However, we will treat Hong Kong as a special region. For a considerable length of time, Hong Kong may continue to practise its capitalist system while we practise our socialist system” (quoted in: ibid., p. 214).

When he returned to Hong Kong, MacLehose tried to conceal his failure in order not to cause alarm. In a statement he emphasized Deng’s reassuring words, but he left out his assertions regarding China’s sovereignty. He said:

“You know the long-standing Chinese position on Hong Kong, that it is part of China and a problem that will be solved when the time is ripe. But the point that was repeatedly stressed to us at all levels was the importance which the Chinese leaders attach to the value of Hong Kong, to the contribution that it could make to the modernisation programmes, to the importance of maintaining investment and confidence in Hong Kong, and of increased Hong Kong investment in China. Indeed Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping formally requested me to ‘ask investors in Hong Kong to put their hearts at ease’; he also asked for encouragement of investment in Guangzhou [sic] Province and the rest of China” (quoted in: ibid., pp. 214-215).

The Hong Kong public was enthusiastic about what they chose to interpret as a sign that China had agreed to let the status quo go on. As Steve Tsang pointed out, the people of Hong Kong “did not want to worry about the future. They chose to celebrate the good news and avoid studying the governor’s full statement carefully. This reflected the mentality of the people at that time” (ibid., p. 215).

The business community was particularly uneasy about the future of Hong Kong because they worried about their investments. For example, bankers were afraid that money lent for mortgages for the conventional 15-year period in the New Territories might not be recovered after 1997 (Scott 1989, p. 166). The misplaced euphoria that followed MacLehose’s visit to China led businessmen to erroneously assume that Beijing was ready for a compromise, so they pushed the British government to start negotiations (ibid., p. 167). Public opinion seemed optimistic that the Chinese authorities were willing to maintain the status quo.

In 1981, Allen Lee, a businessman and member of the Legislative Council, stated:

“If the government’s programmes in the housing, medical and transport fields continue as projected, the people will want this form of administration to continue. With more social development, the people’s confidence in the British administration will grow and there is no way the People’s Republic of China can take over, especially if our outspoken younger generation and the middle class speak up about what form of government they want” (quoted in: ibid., pp. 167-168).

Allen Lee would later found the Liberal Party and become a popular political commentator after 1997. On 19 May 2004, Lee announced his resignation from China’s rubber stamp legislature and from the radio show Teacup in the Storm, aired on the privately owned Commercial Radio. Lee claimed that his decision was a “preventive measure” after Communist Party officials had pressured him in several behind-closed-door meetings to stop voicing public support for democracy in Hong Kong. He also said that a person claiming to be a former Chinese official had phoned him, requested a meeting and brought up Lee’s wife and daughter, which Lee interpreted as a threat. Lee remained a critic of Beijing’s regime and in July 2019 he co-signed a statement with other prominent Hong Kongers demanding the withdrawal of the extradition bill.

The British government, too, deluded itself that they could persuade the PRC to agree to the “continued British administration of the entire Colony well into the future”, as Margaret Thatcher put it. However, as we saw earlier, during her first visit to Beijing, Deng Xiaoping curtly rebuffed her, hinting that he would rather have Hong Kong seized by force than tolerate the continuation of colonial rule beyond 1997. The British were not in a position of strength, because they felt that Hong Kong was militarily indefensible and economically unviable without the New Territories (Tsang 2004, p. 218).

Negotiations between the British and the Chinese Communist government lasted from 1982 to 1984. The blueprint for the settlement of the Hong Kong issue was Deng Xiaoping’s proposed “one country, two systems” framework, which we have discussed in a previous article.

On 19 December 1984 British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed in Beijing the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a binding international agreement registered at the United Nations ibid., p. 225). Characteristically, the first article of the Declaration was a CCP propaganda lie: “The Government of the People’s Republic of China declares that to recover the Hong Kong area … is the common aspiration of the entire Chinese people”.

The document further states that Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region of the PRC which would “enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” and basically maintain its unique legal, institutional and economic structure:

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged … The chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally … Chinese and foreign nationals previously working in the public and police services in the government departments of Hong Kong may remain in employment. British and other foreign nationals may also be employed to serve as advisers or hold certain public posts in government departments … The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Private property, ownership of enterprises, legitimate right of inheritance and foreign investment will be protected by law.”

Despite all the reassurances, the basic contradiction of the Joint Declaration lies in the fact that the Chinese Communist Party can interpret, enforce or ignore it as it sees fit. In recent years the UK and the PRC have repeatedly clashed over the meaning and validity of the Declaration. In December 2020, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied British accusations that Beijing was violating the Declaration, claiming that “the Chinese government governs Hong Kong in accordance with the Constitution and the HKSAR Basic Law, that it has nothing to do with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and that Britain has no supervisory power or so-called moral responsibility to Hong Kong.”


5. From Global City to Chinese Communist Dependency: Hong Kong’s Slow Decline

Hong Kong’s decline did not happen overnight. As a matter of fact, its golden age continued throughout the last years of colonial rule and the first years after the handover. Hong Kong was a global city and an international finance centre that preserved its fundamental freedoms and way of life. There was a sense of optimism and arguably of delusion about the future prospects of Hong Kong and its relations with Beijing. In 2007 the last Governor Chris Patten argued that Hong Kong remained “a free, plural society, with all the institutions and attributes of an open society, with the single exception that it can’t elect its own government”. However, the “one country, two systems” framework proved untenable, because the conditions that made Hong Kong a success story could not be replicated with a totalitarian one party regime in charge. It is beyond the scope of the present article to describe in detail the development of Hong Kong from 1984 to the present. We shall therefore examine merely some of the most salient episodes that show how Beijing undermined Hong Kong’s freedoms after 1997, and how the National Security Law was the inevitable outcome of an impossible political union.

5.1. Prelude to Downfall: The 1989 Tiananmen Square Crackdown

During the MacLehose years there had been little popular demand for democratic reforms. But the 1980s saw the awakening of political activism, mainly as a result of the Sino-British negotiations. Hong Kongers were forced to play the role of mere spectators while two superpowers determined their future. China had made clear that it rejected the concept of a “three-legged stool”, i.e. an arrangement reached by representatives of Britain, the PRC and Hong Kong. Therefore, the Hong Kong people had no real say in the decision-making process. This compounded their sense of frustration and powerlessness. Some people began to demand more democracy as a reaction to having been excluded from choosing their own fate. Others saw democracy as a way to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms from Communist encroachment after 1997 (see Steve Tsang, Hong Kong. Appointment with China, 1997, p. 121).

At the same time, following the signing of the Joint Declaration, both major parties in Britain felt that they had a moral responsibility to initiate democratic reforms to safeguard the freedoms that the people of Hong Kong enjoyed. In parliamentary debates regarding the Sino-British negotiations, most lawmakers supported the agreement, but with the expectation that democratization would be introduced. As former Prime Minister Edward Heath put it: “[W]e must do our utmost to achieve proper, working representative government [in Hong Kong] by the time the handover takes place”. British assumptions that they would be able to implement wide-ranging reforms was soon frustrated by Beijing, which vehemently opposed any institutional changes and took it upon itself to unilaterally draft the Basic Law, a “mini-constitution” for Hong Kong (ibid., pp. 114-116).

Nevertheless, in November 1984 the British government published a white paper proposing the election of 24 of the 56 members of the Legislative Council by 1985 (ibid., p. 123).

The political groups that emerged during this period reflected people’s attitudes towards the new arrangement that was forced upon them. The divide between the pro-democracy and the pro-Beijing camp can be dated back to this era. Sections of the business community sought to cooperate with the Chinese Communist regime in order to protect their financial interests and cultivate personal connections with CCP politicians. They believed that challenging Beijing would be useless and counterproductive, so they chose to ingratiate themselves to the new masters. On the other hand, there were people who feared that Communist rule would undermine Hong Kong’s freedoms and liberal values. One of them was barrister Martin Lee, a British-trained lawyer who was worried about the preservation of judicial independence after 1997. Lee won a seat in the Legislative Council in 1985. He became an outspoken critic of Beijing and a proponent of democracy.

But the event that mainstreamed popular demands for democratization was the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989. The anger and shock that people felt at the sight of the brutal suppression of peaceful protests led some to pressure the British to scrap their agreement with the PRC. Even conservative business leaders who had resisted democratization felt compelled to acquiesce to political reforms to make the government more representative (Roger Buckley, Hong Kong: the road to 1997, 1997, pp. 121-122).

We will now quote a passage from Steve Tsang’s 1997 book “Hong Kong. An appointment with China”, which eloquently describes the crackdown and its impact on Hong Kong:

“When the student movement erupted in Beijing, an increasing number of people in Hong Kong came to identify with what the media soon portrayed as a ‘democracy movement’. The people of Hong Kong had come to feel increasingly frustrated and helpless about the PRC side-tracking the Sino-British Joint Declaration and restricting democratic developments. As a result, public confidence was falling steadily and ordinary people were losing trust in the governments of Hong Kong, Britain and the PRC. Many had wanted to do something positive and recognised that the key to their future lay in Beijing. However, being unfamiliar with and somewhat intimidated by PRC politics, they did not know how to go about doing it or indeed what to do. Thus, when the student demonstrations started, they watched with keen interest …

“By then, there was a widespread belief that ‘as long as freedom, human rights, and democracy cannot be guaranteed in the PRC, they cannot be protected in Hong Kong after 1997’. Consequently, an unspoken common front emerged between the people of Hong Kong and the Beijing demonstrators. Admiration and support, including generous donations, built up quickly. The Beijing protesters were in a sense also fighting Hong Kong’s battle with the feared communist party-state … When the movement in Beijing came under serious threat, the already strong support of the people of Hong Kong suddenly mushroomed. Premier Li Peng’s imposition of martial law on 20 May galvanized them into action. On the following day, the people of Hong Kong showed their solidarity with the Beijing protesters. They staged an unprecedentedly massive sympathy demonstration of up to 500,000 residents (out of a total population of fewer than 6 million of that time). Even communist cadres and their close supporters in Hong Kong gave their backing to the student protesters, seeing the unfolding events as a great patriotic movement. In Hong Kong, there was a general feeling that what was happening in Beijing would have major (though as yet not clearly defined) implications for its own future …

“On the night of 3/4 June 1989, the PLA executed the orders of the top communist leaders (led by Deng) and carried out a massacre. It used excessive and indiscriminate force to suppress the Beijing protest movement centred on Tiananmen Square. The communist leaders intended not only to disperse the demonstrators, but to teach them and the rest of the nation a lesson. Their message was that the party-state had the might to maintain power and the will to use it. It was a classic case of applying the old Chinese proverb of ‘killing a cock to warn the monkey’. This public and bloody suppression was designed to pre-empt any similar protest movement in the future … if the earlier successes of the Beijing students had given the people of Hong Kong a ray of hope for the future, the tanks that rolled down Changan Avenue to Tiananmen Square shattered it. The brutal military crackdown raised the spectre that what happened in Beijing could well be the future of Hong Kong in less than a decade down the line after the PRC’s resumption of sovereignty” (Tsang 1997, pp. 159-163).

Ian Scott, writing in June 1989, expressed his shock and his concern about the future of Hong Kong:

“In June 1989, units of the People’s Liberation Army, under direct orders from the leaders of the Communist Party, massacred thousands of Chinese citizens who had demonstrated peacefully for a more democratic and less corrupt government. The people of Hong Kong were horrified and deeply angered by the atrocities. In an unprecedented demonstration, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to express their disgust at a government which had deliberately chosen to turn military firepower on its own defenseless citizens. The memories of these events will not fade. They have intensified fears of the future under Chinese sovereignty. They mean that the Sino-British agreement and the Basic Law, already straining the bounds of credibility, are now in effect dead letters. They will never win acceptance because the promises they contain have been brutally violated by the very regime which was supposed to guarantee them. The carnage in Beijing has deepened the crisis of legitimacy and has placed the future civil liberties of the Hong Kong people in great jeopardy” (Scott 1989, p. ix).

During the 1991 election campaign for the Legislative Council, the main issue was the candidates’ attitude towards the PRC and the Tiananmen Square crackdown. All the candidates who ran on a pro-Beijing platform were defeated, while the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory, gaining 58% of the vote and 15 out of the 18 seats available. The United Democrats, a party founded by Martin Lee and Szeto Wah just a year earlier, won 12 seats. The debacle of the pro-Beijing forces was a humiliation for the Chinese Communist regime, which became ever more hostile to the prospect of Hong Kong’s democratic development (Tsang 2004, p. 252).

The Tiananmen Square crackdown has loomed large in the collective consciousness of the Hong Kong people ever since 1989. While the Communist regime has tried to erase the memory of the events through censorship, Hong Kong commemorated the massacre every year from 1990 until 2020, when the annual Tiananmen vigil at Victoria Park was banned for the first time.


5.2. From 1997 to the National Security Law

Despite the worries and anxiety about the 1997 handover, it would be wrong to assume that all Hong Kong people cared about democracy as a concept, or that they were bitterly opposed to the CCP. Polls suggest that a section of the population approved of, or at least accepted, the “one country, two systems” framework, and that there was some willingness to believe that it might work out, after all. According to an HKUPOP poll, in early July 1997, shortly after the handover, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, a Beijing loyalist selected by the Chinese Communist Party, had a 64.1% approval rating. He was the first ethnic Chinese to serve as Hong Kong’s leader.

A 1997 study offers interesting insights into ordinary Hong Kongers’ attitudes. A group of researchers who surveyed a sample of 30 Hong Kong married couples from 1991 to 1997 divided them into four categories: loyalists, locals, waiverers, and class enemies of the PRC. According to the study, six couples were loyalists, i.e. people who supported the handover to China and did not feel threatened by it. They were low middle class, attached to Chinese culture and viewed Hong Kong as part of China. Nine couples had a local Hong Kong identity, feeling no personal connection to either Britain or China. They were brought up in Hong Kong, were apolitical and viewed the handover with pragmatism. Eight couples were “waiverers”, people who had applied to emigrate but were turned down by foreign governments. Their views ranged from anxiety, to a “wait and see” attitude, to acceptance of the handover. Seven couples were “class enemies of China”, a category that included emigrants who fled Communist China for political reasons and Hong Kongers who after working in China had formed a negative opinion of the country. They were hostile to the regime and preferred British rule (Janet W. Salaff, Siu-long Wong, Mei-ling Fung, Hong Kong Families’ Views of 1997, in: Ming K. Chan (ed.), The Challenge of Hong Kong’s Reintegration with China, 1997, pp. 149-175).

The survey is not a representative poll, but it is consistent with polls that suggest that there was a sizeable minority that supported the handover, and that even the sceptics were ready to give the new system a chance, hoping that apart from a different flag and other minor changes, Hong Kong would be fundamentally the same. However, a series of economic and political challenges soon undermined the public’s trust in the HKSAR government.

In 1997, the Asian financial crisis hit Hong Kong hard, causing its GDP to shrink by an unprecedented 5.8% in 1998. During the previous economic slump in 1985, GDP had still grown by 0.7%. In 2003, Hong Kong was also affected by the SARS epidemic originating from mainland China. The Hong Kong government had a budget deficit from 1998 to 2003, except for 1999. Unemployment rose from 2.2% in 1997 to 7.9% in 2003 (Wilson Wong, The days after the end of the Asian miracle. The budget crisis of Hong Kong, in: Sing 2008, chapter 6).

In the midst of this economic slowdown, on 24 September 2002 the Hong Kong government released proposals for an anti-subversion law that aimed at safeguarding China’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and national security.” The law caused a public uproar because it was seen as a tool to suppress free speech and punish critics of the Chinese Communist regime.

In 2003, Freedom House wrote in a report: “The [Hong Kong] government’s decision in 2002 to introduce laws that would impose heavy penalties for subversion and other anti-state crimes raised fears that the new powers could be used to stifle free expression and ban groups that China opposes. The move came amid continued concern by human rights activists and others that the checks and balances that underpin liberties in this freewheeling former British colony are being steadily eroded. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the territory’s top official, added to these concerns during the year by reducing the policy-making powers of the respected, nonpartisan civil service. The change came as Hong Kong continued to grapple with high unemployment and a sluggish economy.”

On 1 July 2003, over 500,000 Hong Kong people took to the streets to protest against the anti-subversion law, the largest rally since 1989. Several days later Tung Chee-hwa travelled to Beijing to meet China’s leaders. Chinese state news agency Xinhua wrote that President Hu Jintao “expressed confidence that after undergoing earnest, extensive consultations, the law certainly will win the universal understanding, support and agreement of Hong Kong compatriots.”

We can clearly see the difference in style and attitude between the colonial government and the Communist regime. During colonial rule there had always been open debate, whether in the British parliament, in the government or in society. Moreover, the Governor had broad autonomy to make decisions in Hong Kong’s interest as long as he did not burden the UK treasury or cause a diplomatic crisis with China. The CCP, by contrast, tried to impose its own policies and ideology against the will of the Hong Kong people, claiming that what the Party wanted was also what the people wanted, and if they did not want it yet, they would soon be persuaded. This has been a common tactic of the CCP ever since the handover. By visiting Beijing shortly after the protests, Tung further exposed his weakness and subordination to the Communist regime in a matter that in theory he was supposed to handle himself. This showed that Tung could not independently decide on what was best for Hong Kong. For the first time, the Beijing authorities and the Chief Executive appeared as a united front acting against the wishes of Hong Kongers. By that point, Tung’s approval rating had dropped to 35.3%.

Another major issue facing the Tung administration was cronyism. The government was accused of having close ties to powerful business families and favouring their interests at the expense of ordinary people. In 2003 Freedom House wrote: “[M]any ordinary Hong Kong residents and outside observers have criticized what they see as collusion between the administration and a handful of powerful businessmen. They point, for example, to the government’s decision in 2000 to bypass the routine bidding process in awarding a contract to develop the Cyberport industrial park to Richard Li, a son of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s wealthiest businessman.”

In September 2003, Tung withdrew the anti-subversion law. In 2004, Beijing announced that it would not allow elections by universal suffrage in 2007 or 2008, angering Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp. The Basic Law included the commitment to universal suffrage in Article 45: “The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

On 1 July 2004, over 200,000 people took part in a pro-democracy rally. In late February of that year, opinion polls showed that only 34% of Hong Kongers trusted the government. Meanwhile, support for democratic reforms remained strong. A 2005 survey found that the democratic election of the Chief Executive and of the Legislative Council was preferred by 61% and 62% of respondents respectively (Sing 2008, introduction). In 2005, Tung Chee-hwa stepped down and was replaced by another politician beholden to Beijing.

In 2007, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) once again postponed the possibility for the implementation of universal suffrage to 2017. The NPC’s decision stated that “the election of the fifth Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage; that after the Chief Executive is selected by universal suffrage, the election of the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may be implemented by the method of electing all the members by universal suffrage.”

The key word in the document was “may”. Beijing did not make any pledge or give a specific timeline for democratization. In 2013, Qiao Xiaoyang, Chairman of the NPC Law Committee, declared that universal suffrage for Hong Kong could be implemented only if candidates who “confront the central government” were not eligible to run. He then stated that confrontation did not mean criticism, and that criticism was allowed as long as it was “for the good of the country.” In June 2014 Beijing issued a white paper affirming Hong Kong’s subordination to the central government.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s freedoms were increasingly under threat due to pressure from Beijing. For instance, freedom of the press was deteriorating, as the following report by Freedom House documented:

“[In 2013] press freedom was threatened by mainland China’s growing economic power, which has allowed it to exert greater influence over the media in Hong Kong. Over the course of the year, government restrictions on access to information persisted, and violent attacks against journalists and media executives increased significantly, with many cases remaining unsolved … Press freedom advocates continue to question the selective application of the Broadcasting Ordinance and the constitutionality of existing procedures for granting licenses to new media outlets, as the decisions to grant or refuse licenses are made by the executive branch rather than an independent body … the start-up Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), was rejected without immediate explanation. The decision led to an online petition and a mass protest joined by nearly 36,000 people that month. Though the government denied that political factors were involved in the decision, many critics speculated that it had favored big businesses with vested interests in the political status quo, as both PCCW and I-Cable are controlled by tycoons with close ties to Beijing …

“According to the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Beijing’s Liaison Office had increased its contacts with local reporters, with some receiving subtle warnings that they were being monitored. Self-censorship stems in part from the close relationship between local media owners and the central government. Several owners sit on the CPPCC, an advisory body that has little real influence over government policy but is used by China’s ruling Communist Party to co-opt powerful members of society. A number of Hong Kong media owners are also current or former members of the NPC, and many have significant business interests in mainland China. The appointment of editors with ties to China also prompted accusations of self-censorship in 2013 … Targeted violence against journalists, once rare in Hong Kong, occurred more frequently in 2013, and most victims were media bosses or employees of outlets known for their investigative reporting on topics deemed sensitive to the Chinese government.

“In June, Chen Ping, the publisher of iSun Affairs magazine, a political weekly that is banned in mainland China, was beaten by two club-wielding men. Chen suggested that the attack was orchestrated by authorities in Beijing and said several of his staff editors and reporters had been summoned by Chinese police in the past. In the same month, a series of attacks targeted personnel related to Next Media, which owns popular tabloid-style publications that frequently report on Beijing’s human rights abuses. A stolen car was rammed into the front gate of Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai’s residence, and within three days, a journalist for an affiliated newspaper was beaten. At the end of June, masked men threatened Next Media’s distribution workers with knives and burned more than 25,000 copies of the company’s Apple Daily newspaper. In July, Shih Wing-ching, owner of the free daily newspaper am730, was ambushed by two attackers who smashed his car’s windshield with hammers. Rights groups criticized the police for failing to protect journalists.”

The CCP and its allies launched an all-out assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms, trying to delegitimize and demonize any opposition to the regime. One example of this strategy was the Beijing media’s smear campaign against Alpais Lam Wai-sze, a teacher who had yelled at a policeman. She accused the policeman of failing to protect members of Falun Gong, a religious and political movement banned in mainland China, against abuse by a pro-Beijing group of people. Nearly two decades after the handover, it was becoming clear that the Hong Kong government was no longer unobtrusive, responsive to public opinion and committed to protecting civil liberties.

The dissatisfaction of large sections of society was compounded by economic and social issues which the government did not seem able to deal with and, in the eyes of many, was not willing to solve because it served only one master, the Chinese Communist Party, and not the Hong Kong people. One of the most pressing problems was the housing crisis. A 2014 Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey found that Hong Kong’s housing was the least affordable in the world, ahead of Vancouver and San Francisco. Hong Kong’s average home price rose from 13.5 times the gross annual median household income in 2013 to 14.9 times in 2014, the highest increase on the survey’s ten-year record.

In 2017 the Demographia survey found that while the city’s median annual household income was HK$300,000, the median cost of a home was more than HK$5.4 million. Some experts attribute this to the forces of supply and demand, but others believe that the issue is caused by the government’s control of land which artificially inflates prices. Land premium charges account for as much as 50% of the total cost of housing projects. In recent years developers from mainland China have invested heavily in the Hong Kong property market. They purchase land at high prices and sell property for record profits, driving small local developers out of business. Large Hong Kong property developers have also faced increased competition. In the first half of 2016, Chinese developers bought HK$9.8 billion ($1.3 billion) worth of public land sites in Hong Kong, making up 45% of total public land sales. During that period only one big Hong Kong developer won a land deal.

Meanwhile income inequality worsened. In 2001 the median household income of the bottom 10% of the households was HK$3,350 per month, but in 2011 it had decreased to HK$2,290 adjusted for inflation. The household income of the top 10% increased from HK$90,000 to HK$96,480. The income gap between the top 10% and the bottom 10% increased from 26.9 times in 2001 to 42.1 times in 2011. In 2013, about 20% of the Hong Kong population fell below the poverty line of HK$11,500 for a family of three. The Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, increased from 0.518 in 1996 to 0.537 in 2011 (Yongshun Cai, The Occupy Movement in Hong Kong: Sustaining Decentralized Protest, 2016, chapter 2).

Hong Kongers also felt anger at the rising numbers of mainland Chinese tourists and shoppers, who were accused of bad behaviour, of inconveniencing local residents, of abusing Hong Kong’s public services, and of driving up property prices, among other things. The annual number of visitors from mainland China rose from about 2.3 million in 1996 to about 40.7 million in 2013 (Hong Kong Digest of Statistics, 1997, p. 146: Hong Kong Digest of Statistics 2014, p. 328).

The erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of democratization as well as with the general direction of the city ultimately led to the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. The unprecedented protests rocked Hong Kong from September 26 to December 15. The Hong Kong police arrested 955 people during the protests and 48 people afterwards on charges of “unlawful assembly” and ”unauthorized assembly”.

One year later, Hong Kongers were shocked when five booksellers of the Hong Kong-based Causeway Bay Books publishing house, which printed books critical of the Beijing leadership, were abducted by the Communist authorities. One of them, Lam Wing-kei, was detained for 8 months and then allowed to return to Hong Kong on the condition that he went back to mainland China to hand over to the authorities a hard disk with the names of people he had sold books to. However, he broke his bail terms and in July 2016 he held a press conference telling the world what he had experienced. In April 2019, he fled to Taiwan. Another bookseller, Gui Minhai, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “illegally providing intelligence to foreign entities” in a secret trial. Gui was a Swedish citizen, but the Chinese authorities claim that he voluntarily renounced his citizenship while in detention.

In the World Press Freedom index, Hong Kong plummeted from 39th place in 2005 to 80th place in 2020.

In August 2017, Umbrella Movement leaders Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Nathan Law were sentenced to between six to eight months in jail. As part of the government crackdown on the pro-democracy camp, various pro-democracy candidates were banned from running for office, others were expelled from the legislature after having been democratically elected. The Hong Kong National Party was outlawed. In April 2019, nine organizers of the Umbrella Movement, including the three regarded as its founders, professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, were sentenced to jail.

It is against this backdrop that in 2019 the Hong Kong government introduced the infamous Extradition Bill, sparking the largest ever demonstrations in the history of Hong Kong. The government violently cracked down on protesters, exacerbating tensions. In June 2020, the Chinese Communist regime passed the National Security Law, which de facto turned the Hong Kong government into an authoritarian subsidiary of the Beijing regime.


“During the 156 years under British colonial rule, did Hong Kong residents ever enjoy any democracy or freedom?” – wrote in June 2020 The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, quoting PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying. “Was any of the former 28 Hong Kong governors elected by the Hong Kong residents? Also, during the UK’s colonial rule, the British Treason Act was applied in Hong Kong.”

The argument that British Hong Kong was not a democracy, and therefore demands for democratization are hypocritical, may appear reasonable on the surface. But, as is often the case, the CCP is using false equivalence, whataboutism and deception to promote its propaganda.

As we have explained, British Hong Kong was an autocracy. However, there are fundamental differences between British and Chinese Communist Hong Kong.

Under British rule, the government was subject to checks and balances. First, the master of Hong Kong was the British parliament, a democratically elected body within a democratic system. Second, the Hong Kong government was too weak to be too tyrannical without risking to collapse. Third, the British feared China’s influence and had to try to gain the consensus of Hong Kong’s citizens in order not to be undermined by Beijing. Fourth, Britain always guaranteed basic civil liberties in accordance with its own tradition. Fifth, people in Hong Kong could travel to the UK, petition the government and use the free media to voice their views.

To put it bluntly, the British did not create a good government because they were inherently wise or benevolent, but because a series of internal and external factors pushed them to do so. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the British government guaranteed basic civil liberties and its exercise of power was restrained by checks and balances. The following episode may be useful to illustrate this point.

After the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, some Hong Kongers began demanding that they be granted the right of abode in the UK. The British government was not willing to accept their request. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown, pressure on the UK government increased. As Chang and Chuang explained:

“In April 1989, a select committee of the British House of Commons held hearings in Hong Kong for the purpose of listening to the desires of Hong Kong residents. One British newspaper reported that Conservative and Labour members of Parliament alike were unsympathetic – and the government in London even more so – in regard to the hearings. Some Hong Kong residents believed the hearings were a mere formality and not grounds for optimism. After the Tiananmen Incident, however, Hong Kong residents began hoping that the British government might become more flexible. Numerous groups and individuals – including Allen Lee, the senior member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and Lydia Dunn, the senior member of the Hong Kong Executive Council – went to London to do some lobbying. Lee and Dunn were received, among others, by Foreign Secretary Howe and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the meantime, Hong Kong residents anxiously awaited the verdict, a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee on British Policy regarding Hong Kong. The report was released on 30 June 1989. While it recognized the Tiananmen Incident’s enormously adverse impact on Hong Kong, the committee maintained that not all Hong Kong’s 3.25 million BDTCs [British Dependent Territories Citizens] should be given the right of abode in Britain. Hong Kong’s people and government expressed disappointment … The committee, however, advocated a speed-up in the pace of Hong Kong’s democratization, ensuring a full-fledged democracy by 1997…” (David Wen-wei Chang, Richard Y. Chuang, The Politics of Hong Kong’s Reversion to China, 1999, pp.49-50).

Continued pressure from the Hong Kong people pushed the British government to make a concession. In December 1989 Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd announced that the UK would grant full British passports to 50,000 individuals deemed “important to the efficient working of the territory, and who currently are most vulnerable to emigration”, as well as to their family members. The total number of eligible people was estimated at 225,000 (ibid., pp. 52-53).

As we can see, the Hong Kong people were perfectly free to criticize the British government. They were also free to travel to the UK to directly lobby the government. Even though their requests were not fully met, at least they obtained some concessions. No Hong Kong citizen critical of the UK policies was harassed, smeared, intimidated or arrested.

After the handover, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the PRC underwent a profound change. Unlike the UK, Communist China is a totalitarian one party dictatorship where the party leadership is the absolute ruler. The Hong Kong government now serves the Communist Party. There are no checks and balances, no restraints. For the regime, criticism is a challenge to its absolute power and must therefore be stifled. Not only has the Hong Kong government no real autonomy any more, but it would be unthinkable for any Hong Kong citizen to travel to Beijing to pressure the government. Free thinking, free speech and civil liberties are simply incompatible with an authoritarian state.

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