In 1997 Britain returned Hong Kong to China under a framework put forward by Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping known as “one country, two systems”.
In a convoluted piece of land grabbing, Hong Kong became a British colony after the First Opium War (1839-42), with the perpetual cession of Hong Kong Island followed by the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 and a 99-year lease of the New Territories from 1898.
Under “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong is allowed to maintain a separate political and economic system from China. And except in matters of military defence and foreign affairs, Hong Kong has independent executive, legislative and judiciary powers. In addition, it can negotiate relations directly with foreign states and international organisations in a broad range of “appropriate fields”.
In reality, the authorities in Beijing work behind the scenes to influence decisions indirectly or, when patience runs thin, through direct intervention. This has led to a power struggle as well as considerable confusion when it comes to issues of identity and public memory. Many people in Hong Kong wish to assert independence from mainland China, while retaining their historical and much cherished Chinese traditions and beliefs.
The name “Hong Kong” is thought to derive from an imprecise pronunciation in spoken Cantonese or Hakka of words meaning “Fragrant Harbour” or “Incense Harbour”. Before 1842, it referred only to a small inlet – now Aberdeen Harbour. Fragrant may have suggested the sweet taste of the freshwater estuary known as Pearl River or the smell of incense from factories lining the coast of northern Kowloon.
The story of Hong Kong can be found in its wonderful Museum of History in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui East. It runs the gamut from Hong Kong’s watery beginnings as a natural flood plain to artefacts left by prehistoric inhabitants to its rebuilding and expansion after the Japanese occupation during World War II. The powerhouse that is modern Hong Kong resulted in part from an influx of skilled migrants fleeing the Chinese Civil War as well as rapid industrialisation driven by textile exports, manufacturing industries and re-export of goods to China.
Yet Hong Kong’s history is felt by many to lag behind reality. In “Hong Kong, where history has become a battleground for Beijing” (The Guardian, 27 December 2016) Benjamin Haas notes:
“At a public forum earlier this year on renovating Hong Kong’s history museum exhibits to tackle events beyond 1997, a chorus of seemingly organised, mostly elderly residents made demands that any expansion would promote a sense of belonging to the China and the Communist party, rather than a local, uniquely Hong Kong identity.”
It’s the usual story of might is right. China was never about to concede a major natural port strategically located on its southern coast or to lose face by apparently abandoning a people whose ancestors had lived in the region for over 40,000 years. China’s tactic is one of chipping away stealthy and at length until it gets what it thinks it wants.
Yet, in the long run, China might do better to actively promote “one country, two systems” and to recognize a duality that benefits both it and the people of Hong Kong. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Anyone can buy a good house, but good neighbours are priceless.”