Hong Kong is a famous free port and often mistaken as an ‘island’ city. Actually HK is a part of a peninsula surrounded with 260 islands located at the mouth of the Pearl River Delta extending into the South China Sea. HK was ceded to Great Britain in 1842 after Qing Dynasty was defeated in the Opium War. The southern part of the Kowloon Peninsula and the Stonecutters Island were ceded to Great Britain in 1860. In 1898, a northern part of Kowloon Peninsula called New Territory was leased to the Great Britain by China for 99 years (1898-1997). Thus, when Great Britain was compelled to return HK to China, 1997 became the target year for the return. Since 1997, HK, consisting of the island of HK (81 sq km), Stonecutters Island (attached to Kowloon Peninsula through land reclamation), Kowloon Peninsula (46.9 sq km), and the New Territories (952 sq km), became the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China enjoying total economic freedom without the burden of defense.
The modern history of Hong Kong can be briefly reviewed in four periods, (1) from 1842 to 1941 HK was ruled by the Great Britain as a colony, (2) from 1941 to 1945, HK was occupied by Japanese Imperial Army as Japan waged war to conquer China (3) from 1945 to 1997, HK was returned to the British rule, and (4) from 1997 to 2017, HK was returned to China becoming HKSAR of China under the one country two systems policy. In the first period, HK was basically a trade port for the British trading with China (including the infamous and inhumane opium trade). HK was ruled as a Crown colony by the Royal Instructions which prescribed a Governor, a position appointed by the British Crown, and an executive Council and Legislative Council both being an advisory body to the Governor. The Governor of HK was always a British citizen directly appointed by Great Britain. Thus the HK residents were second-class citizens having no political rights. During the Japanese occupation from 1941-1945, HK was under Japanese military rule, thus HK citizens were treated basically like prisoners of war.
After Japan was defeated and surrendered to the Allies, HK was returned to the British when China was in a state of civil war. The Great Britain continued ruling HK as a colony without giving HK citizens any political right. The introduction of elected representatives (by local elections) to the Legislative Council (LegCo) was only initiated after the British had agreed to return HK to China by the 1984 agreement with 1997 being the target year for China to recover her sovereignty over HK. Interestingly, the British, cared very little about HK citizens’ democratic rights under the British rule, suddenly became more ‘concerned’ about HK citizens’ future democratic rights under the PRC government. This hypocritical ‘concern’ has been shamelessly expressed in the negotiation on HK sovereignty and has also repeatedly appeared in the form of foreign interference in HK’s post-return democracy.
The return of HK is by no means voluntary on the British part. China, after she became a member of the UN (1971) and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, began her diplomatic process of seeking sovereignty over HK and Macau working through the UN Decolonization Committee (1972). In March 1979, the Governor of HK Murray MacLehose paid his first official visit to PRC testing water for resolving HK’s sovereignty issue. Three years later British PM Margret Thatcher dispatched former PM Edward Heath as a special envoy to China to establish an understanding of the PRC’s view on the HK issue. The Chinese leader Deng Xiao-Ping then outlined a plan to make HK a special economic zone, a capitalist system under Chinese Sovereignty. Thatcher visited PRC in September with an intent to extend the lease of Hong Kong territory based on the Treaty of Nanking (1842), Convention of Peking (1856) and the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong signed in 1890, but Deng was firm allowing no room for compromise on the sovereignty issue and citing all those treaties as unequal treaties. Deng bluntly told Thatcher, “I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon.” Thatcher’s reply was, “There is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.” Subsequently, the 5th session of the 5th National People’s Congress (NPC) amended the constitution to include article 31 to permit China to establish SARs when necessary. The formal negotiation began after the Thatcher-Deng meeting. China was firm on sovereignty and ‘administration’ right which the Great Britain wished to keep post-handover. After several rounds of negotiations, Britain formally conceded her intention of seeking administration right or co-administration with the PRC.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed on December 19, 1984 in Beijing. In the Joint Declaration, the People's Republic of China Government stated that it had decided to resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong (including Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories) with effect from 1 July 1997 and the United Kingdom Government declared that it would restore Hong Kong to the PRC with effect from 1 July 1997. In the document, the PRC also declared its basic policies regarding Hong Kong; under the One Country Two Systems policy, the socialist system of PRC would not be imposed and HK’s previous capitalist system would remain unchanged for 50 years, all stipulated in the HK Basic Law. The Basic Law was drafted in 1985 by a drafting committee composed of members from both Mainland and HK, first published in 1988 after canvassing HK people’s views and then formally adopted by the NPC on April 4, 1990 along with a flag and an emblem of the HKSAR.
Tung Chee-Hwa, a fomer shipping tycoon, became the first Chief Executive of the HKSAR officially established in July 1997. In May 1998, the first post-return elections were held, thus began the reform process of the HKSAR political system. The Great Britain as well as the U.S. continued their ‘concern’ of the HK constitutional reform. In March 2005, Tung Chee-Hwa resigned for health reason and was succeeded by Donald Tsang who continued to propose constitutional reforms. Surprisingly, the quiet HK citizens, who had remained obedient and subservient under 155 years of British rule, began to make demonstrations demanding more democracy after they were given political rights. In 2007, 10th anniversary of the HK return, Donald Tsang won election in March and was appointed by NPC for another 5-year term. In the same year Beijing announced that HK might directly elect her leader in 2017 and their legislators by 2020, but the ‘Pro-democracy’ camp was not satisfied. In December 2009, HKSAR authority announced proposals for enlarged Legislative Council, but critics said the moves were not enough. In July 2012, Leung Chun-Ying succeeded Tsang as the 4th CE of HKSAR and he faced continued ‘pro-democracy’ demands till today. There seems to have an external influence to push HK for independence in the name of democracy but HK cannot afford to be independent from China. The progress of democracy in HK over the past 20 years under PRC was a giant leap compared to its 155 years under British rule. On March 26, 2017, Carrie Lam defeated John Tsang and Woo Kwok-Hing with a landslide victory and became the first woman CE of HKSAR, another landmark of democracy. There seems to be little doubt that HK not only will remain as an international vibrant finance and trade center but also will be a successful example of China’s one-country-two-systems political model.