Features | Politics | East Asia

Putting Hong Kong in Historical Context

‘The Occupy Central movement is about a lot of things that concern China’s present and its future.’

Putting Hong Kong in Historical Context
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

The return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997 was a seminal juncture in recent Chinese history. While it marked a final “end of empire” for Britain, the occasion was a moment of celebration – indeed, triumph – for China, an opportunity to bury the historical Chinese experience of violation by European powers and loudly emphasize the strength, dignity, pride and continuity that would characterize China in the twenty-first century.

Even so, the recent protests in Hong Kong are evidence that the legacy of European involvement in China is stubbornly refusing to be consigned to the history books. Instead, the Chinese saga of engagement with the outside world –and particularly China’s difficult relationship with European powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – continues to influence the country’s politics, society and foreign policy in profound ways.

Hong Kong was annexed by Britain in the 1840s at the beginning of what is now known as China’s “Century of Humiliation.” This ignominious period in Chinese history began around the time of the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), two conflicts fought between Britain and the Qing dynasty over the issue of whether China would open its borders to unwanted economic penetration by the west. Britain won both Opium Wars in convincing fashion, forcing China to bow to its economic demands and cede Hong Kong Island (in 1842) and Kowloon Peninsula (in 1860) for the purposes of creating a permanent British trading post at the mouth of the Pearl River.

Britain was not the first European power to violate Chinese territorial integrity. Yet the colonization of Hong Kong set in motion a chain of concessions to European powers unlike anything seen before: in Shanghai, Tianjin (Tientsin) and elsewhere. Even Japan, which historically had always been subordinate to the Middle Kingdom, was in a position to demand concessions of the Qing by the end of the 1800s. As the century came to a close, a string of European and Japanese enclaves littered the Chinese coastline, each one a monument to China’s abject vulnerability to external predation.

The Century of Humiliation persisted deep into the 1900s. Although the Qing monarchy was replaced in 1911 by a republican government intent on modernizing China, Japan and the various European powers continued to compete for spheres of influence in former Qing territories. Ultimately, the outside powers’ disregard for Chinese sovereignty culminated in the 1930s with Japan’s annexation of Manchuria (Manchukuo) and later full-scale invasion of China.

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Even after the defeat of Japan in 1945 and the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949-1950, Western backing for the Kuomintang government on Taiwan ensured that China would continue to be riven by division long after the actual fighting had subsided. Nevertheless, there were signs on the mainland that the Century of Humiliation might finally be at an end, at least in terms of China’s weakness vis-à-vis the west. Upon declaring the creation of a workers’ state, for example, Mao Zedong insisted that the Chinese people had “stood up.” The era of Chinese subservience and suffering was over, Mao announced. Control over China’s destiny was had been returned to Chinese hands – a promise that appeared to be vindicated as the new People’s Republic of China government succeeded in asserting effective control over almost all of the country, Taiwan notwithstanding. A bullish, centralized Chinese government was now in place.

Outposts of European colonization like Macau and Hong Kong, however, stood out as anomalies – thorns in the side of the PRC; artifacts of western imperialism. On its face, it is difficult to grasp why the PRC would not try to overrun these small and hard-to-defend colonies. In 1961, for example, postcolonial India invaded (“liberated”) the Portuguese colony of Goa with the stated aim of expunging European colonialism from the Indian subcontinent. In contrast, however, the PRC tolerated the British presence in Hong Kong for nearly five decades, partly out of a desire to avoid a confrontation with the West, to be sure, but also because of the enormous wealth that trade with Hong Kong brought to mainland China.

Even so, Hong Kong’s days always were numbered. Although Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula had been annexed outright by Britain outright in the 1840s and 1860s, the colony had been expanded in 1898 to include vastly more territory (the so-called “New Territories”) via a 99-year lease. Once this lease expired in 1997, much of Britain’s Hong Kong colony would have to be returned to Chinese control. At that point, the rump of the colony would be left unsustainable. Beijing could afford to be patient, confident that it would reabsorb Hong Kong in due course.

In the event, Britain agreed in 1984 to cede the entirety of the Hong Kong colony once the lease on the New Territories expired on the condition that the territory be allowed to keep its distinct character post-handover. In an unexpected twist, however, the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, belatedly decided to embark on unprecedented democratic reform in the colony. For well over a century, Hong Kong had been ruled at the whim of its colonial overlords. Now, in the twilight of British rule, Patten had decided to democratize the colony.

As a result of Patten’s reforms, Beijing in 1997 was forced to digest a territory whose citizens had become used to a form of democratic governance. The PRC’s leaders, who had promulgated the doctrine of “one country, two systems” as a way to allay the concerns of the Hong Kong business elite, found themselves bound to preserve the broad contours of a political system anathema to the very foundations of Communist Party rule. Today’s tug-of-war between autocrats in Beijing and pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong is thus a direct consequence of the “democratic time bomb” left behind by the retreating British.

The legacy of British meddling in Hong Kong is only one instance of how the Century of Humiliation continues to shape China’s interaction with the rest of the world. China’s extreme sensitivity regarding its various territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas; its disdain for international condemnation of its Tibet policy; its forceful insistence that Cross-Strait Relations be a matter for Beijing and Taipei alone; and its vexing stance in the UN Security Council against almost all forms of humanitarian intervention – all of these facets of China’s international relations can be argued to stem, at least in part, from China’s past experience of vulnerability and its post-1949 determination never to be forced to bend to external pressure.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that China was a paragon of stability before its subjection to European molestation in the mid-1800s. The Middle Kingdom experienced war, invasion, rebellion and instability for centuries prior to the arrival of European colonizers. Yet the comparatively recent history of European meddling in China – Britain’s colonization of Hong Kong being a premier case in point – has left some imprints upon Chinese politics that warrant particular attention. China’s place in contemporary international politics simply cannot be understood outside of this context.

By any estimation, the Century of Humiliation ended decades ago. The Chinese people have indeed stood up. Yet the national memory of that undignified and distressing period in Chinese history has left a host of unresolved issues that still plague China’s politics and international relations. Today’s unrest on the streets of Hong Kong is just one manifestation of this unbending historical legacy. The Occupy Central movement is about a lot of things that concern China’s present and its future – questions of political democracy, economic inequality, social fairness, constitutionality, prospects for reform, and more – but it is also intrinsically bound up with China’s past. The Century of Humiliation casts a shadow over the whole ordeal.

Peter Harris is a doctoral candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a fellow of the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft.  He blogs for the The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @ipeterharris.