Hong Kong 25: From backwater to commercial metropolis

Today’s Hong Kong is best known for its sprawl of skyscrapers and its role as a bustling financial center and regional trade channel off the southern coast of mainland China.

But the territory was once a quiet backwater of rural hamlets and fishing communities, where mountainous terrain towered over sparse human settlements.

Photo: GovHK.

Twenty-five years after the city was returned to China by the British colonial power, here are the key points of its evolution:

Ancient history

Remnants of cemeteries and early rock carvings show human life in Hong Kong from the Stone Age.

The territory is believed to have entered the fold of the Chinese Empire during the Han Dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD.

A growing number of mainland Han Chinese began to settle in Hong Kong, alongside boat communities believed to also originate from southern China.

Trade boom

Hong Kong’s sheltered main port became a staging ground for trading vessels plying the maritime silk route between Asia, Africa and the Middle East, flourishing from around the 7th century.

In addition to silk, China exported porcelain and tea and received everything from spices to plants and textiles.

Hong Kong around 1900.

Hong Kong’s outer islands were also a haven for Chinese pirates – its current territory comprises 260 islands, many of which are uninhabited.

European arrival

Portuguese, Dutch, and French traders arrived on China’s southern coast in the 1500s, and Portugal established a base in Macao, neighboring Hong Kong.

But in the 18th century, China imposed restrictions on Europeans in an effort to contain their influence.

Britain was angry after an imperial edict banned its opium trade from India to China, which led to the spread of addiction.

After Chinese authorities seized a vast amount of the drug, Britain attacked in 1840 and reached northern China, threatening Beijing, in the First Opium War.

To make peace, China agreed to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1841.

The Kowloon Peninsula followed in 1860 after a second Opium War, and Britain expanded north into the New Rural Territories in 1898, leasing the area for 99 years.

British rule

Hong Kong was part of the British Empire until 1997 when the lease on the New Territories expired and the entire city was returned to China.

Photo: GovHK.

Under British rule, Hong Kong developed into a commercial and financial center with one of the busiest ports in the world.

Anti-colonial sentiment fueled riots in 1967 that led to social and political reform – by the time it was returned to China, the city had a partially elected legislature and retained an independent judiciary.

Hong Kong exploded when China opened up its economy in the late 1970s, becoming a bridge between rising power and the rest of the world.

Back to China

After lengthy negotiations, notably between former leader Deng Xiaoping and ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the two parties signed the future handover of Hong Kong in 1984.

The Sino-British declaration stated that Hong Kong would be a special administrative region of China and retain its freedoms and way of life for 50 years after the date of handover on July 1, 1997.

Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Beijing says Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems model remains intact.

But critics including Britain and other Western powers say China has eviscerated the city’s unique freedoms, especially in the wake of huge democracy protests that erupted in 2019.

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Garland K. Long