British Hong Kong


Coordinates: 22°16′N 114°09′E / 22.267°N 114.150°E / 22.267; 114.150

Hong Kong
Anthem: "God Save the Queen"
(1841–1901; 1952–1997)
"God Save the King"
(1901–1941; 1945–1952)
Location of Hong Kong (1841-1997)
CapitalVictoria (de facto)
Official languages
British monarch 
• 1841–1901
Queen Victoria
• 1901–1910
Edward VII
• 1910–1936
George V
• 1936
Edward VIII
• 1936–1941, 1945–1952
George VI
• 1952–1997
Elizabeth II
• 1843–1844
Sir Henry Pottinger (first)
• 1992–1997
Chris Patten (last)
Chief Secretary[note 2] 
• 1843
George Malcolm (first)
• 1993–1997
Anson Chan (last)
LegislatureLegislative Council
Historical eraVictorian era to 20th century
26 January 1841
29 August 1842
18 October 1860
9 June 1898
25 December 1941 –
30 August 1945
1 July 1997
• 1996 estimate
• Density
5,796/km2 (15,011.6/sq mi)
GDP (PPP)1996[2] estimate
• Total
$154 billion
• Per capita
GDP (nominal)1996[2] estimate
• Total
$160 billion
• Per capita
Gini (1996)Negative increase 51.8[3]
HDI (1995)Increase 0.808[4]
very high
CurrencyBefore 1895:


After 1937:
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Xin'an County
Japanese Hong Kong
Japanese Hong Kong
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
Today part of
British Hong Kong
Traditional Chinese英屬香港
Simplified Chinese英属香港

Hong Kong, now referred to as British Hong Kong, was a colony and dependent territory of the British Empire from 1841 to 1997, apart from a period under Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945. The colonial period began with the occupation of Hong Kong Island in 1841 during the First Opium War. The island was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Nanking, ratified by the Daoguang Emperor in the aftermath of the war of 1842. It was established as a Crown colony in 1843. The colony expanded to include the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War. Hong Kong's territory was further extended in 1898 when the British obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories.

Although China ceded Hong Kong Island and Kowloon in perpetuity, the leased New Territories comprised the vast majority of the total area. Britain did not see any viable way to divide the colony, while the People's Republic of China would not consider extending the lease or allowing British administration thereafter. With the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which states that the social and economic systems in Hong Kong would remain unchanged for 50 years, the British government agreed to transfer the entire territory to China upon the expiration of the New Territories lease in 1997.[5][6]


Colonial establishment

In 1836, the Manchu Qing government undertook a major policy review of the opium trade, which had been first introduced to the Chinese by Persian then Islamic traders over many centuries.[7][8][9][10][11] Viceroy Lin Zexu took on the task of suppressing the opium trade. In March 1839, he became Special Imperial Commissioner in Canton, where he ordered the foreign traders to surrender their opium stock. He confined the British to the Canton Factories and cut off their supplies. Chief Superintendent of Trade, Charles Elliot, complied with Lin's demands to secure a safe exit for the British, with the costs involved to be resolved between the two governments. When Elliot promised that the British government would pay for their opium stock, the merchants surrendered their 20,283 chests of opium, which were destroyed in public.[12]

Possibly the earliest painting of Hong Kong Island, showing the waterfront settlement which became Victoria City

In September 1839, the British Cabinet decided that the Chinese should be made to pay for the destruction of British property, either by the threat or use of force. An expeditionary force was placed under Elliot and his cousin, Rear-Admiral George Elliot, as joint plenipotentiaries in 1840. Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston stressed to the Chinese government that the British government did not question China's right to prohibit opium, but it objected to the way this was handled.[12] He viewed the sudden strict enforcement as laying a trap for the foreign traders, and the confinement of the British with supplies cut off was tantamount to starving them into submission or death. He instructed the Elliot cousins to occupy one of the Chusan Islands in the Hangzhou Bay delta across from Shanghai, then to present a letter from himself to a Chinese official for the Emperor of China, then to proceed to the Gulf of Bohai for a treaty, and if the Chinese resisted, then to blockade the key ports of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.[13] Palmerston demanded a territorial base in the Chusan Islands for trade so that British merchants "may not be subject to the arbitrary caprice either of the Government of Peking, or its local Authorities at the Sea-Ports of the Empire".[14]

In 1841, Elliot negotiated with Lin's successor, Qishan, in the Convention of Chuenpi during the First Opium War. On 20 January, Elliot announced "the conclusion of preliminary arrangements", which included the cession of the barren Hong Kong Island and its harbour to the British Crown.[15][page needed][16] Elliot chose Hong Kong Island instead of Chusan because he believed a settlement nearer to Shanghai would cause an "indefinite protraction of hostilities", whereas Hong Kong Island's harbour was a valuable base for the British trading community in Canton.[17] British rule began with the occupation of the island on 26 January.[13] Commodore Gordon Bremer, commander-in-chief of British forces in China, took formal possession of the island at Possession Point, where the Union Jack was raised under a fire of joy from the marines and a royal salute from the warships.[18] Hong Kong Island was ceded in the Treaty of Nanking on 29 August 1842 and established as a Crown colony after the ratification exchanged between the Daoguang Emperor and Queen Victoria was completed on 26 June 1843.[19]

Growth and expansion

The Treaty of Nanking failed to satisfy British expectations of a major expansion of trade and profit, which led to increasing pressure for a revision of the terms.[20] In October 1856, Chinese authorities in Canton detained the Arrow, a Chinese-owned ship registered in Hong Kong to enjoy the protection of the British flag. The Consul in Canton, Harry Parkes, claimed the hauling down of the flag and arrest of the crew were "an insult of very grave character". Parkes and Sir John Bowring, the fourth Governor of Hong Kong, seized the incident to pursue a forward policy. In March 1857, Palmerston appointed Lord Elgin as Plenipotentiary, with the aim of securing a new and satisfactory treaty. A French expeditionary force joined the British to avenge the execution of a French missionary in 1856.[21] In 1860, the capture of the Taku Forts and occupation of Beijing led to the Treaty of Tientsin and Convention of Peking. In the Treaty of Tientsin, the Chinese accepted British demands to open more ports, navigate the Yangtze River, legalise the opium trade and have diplomatic representation in Beijing. During the conflict, the British occupied the Kowloon Peninsula, where the flat land was valuable training and resting ground. The area in what is now south of Boundary Street and Stonecutters Island was ceded in the Convention of Peking.[22]

Hong Kong in the 1930s

In 1898, the British sought to extend Hong Kong for defence. After negotiations began in April 1898, with the British Minister in Beijing, Sir Claude MacDonald, representing Britain, and diplomat Li Hongzhang leading the Chinese, the Second Convention of Peking was signed on 9 June. Since the foreign powers had agreed by the late 19th century that it was no longer permissible to acquire outright sovereignty over any parcel of Chinese territory, and in keeping with the other territorial cessions China made to Russia, Germany and France that same year, the extension of Hong Kong took the form of a 99-year lease. The lease consisted of the rest of Kowloon south of the Sham Chun River and 230 islands, which became known as the New Territories. The British formally took possession on 16 April 1899.[23]

Japanese occupation

Japanese troops crossing the border from the mainland, 1941

In 1941, during the Second World War, the British reached an agreement with the Chinese government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek that if Japan attacked Hong Kong, the Chinese National Army would attack the Japanese from the rear to relieve pressure on the British garrison. On 8 December, the Battle of Hong Kong began when Japanese air bombers effectively destroyed British air power in one attack.[24] Two days later, the Japanese breached the Gin Drinkers Line in the New Territories. The British commander, Major-General Christopher Maltby, concluded that the island could not be defended for long unless he withdrew his brigade from the mainland. On 18 December, the Japanese crossed Victoria Harbour.[25] By 25 December, organised defence was reduced into pockets of resistance. Maltby recommended a surrender to Governor Sir Mark Young, who accepted his advice to reduce further losses. A day after the invasion, Chiang ordered three corps under General Yu Hanmou to march towards Hong Kong. The plan was to launch a New Year's Day attack on the Japanese in the Canton region, but before the Chinese infantry could attack, the Japanese had broken Hong Kong's defences. The British casualties were 2,232 killed or missing and 2,300 wounded. The Japanese reported 1,996 killed and 6,000 wounded.[26]

The Japanese soldiers committed atrocities, including rape, on many locals.[27] The population fell in half, from 1.6 million in 1941 to 750,000 at war's end because of fleeing refugees; they returned in 1945.[28]

The Japanese imprisoned the ruling British colonial elite and sought to win over the local merchant gentry by appointments to advisory councils and neighbourhood watch groups. The policy worked well for Japan and produced extensive collaboration from both the elite and the middle class, with far less terror than in other Chinese cities. Hong Kong was transformed into a Japanese colony, with Japanese businesses replacing the British. However, the Japanese Empire had severe logistical difficulties and by 1943 the food supply for Hong Kong was problematic. The overlords became more brutal and corrupt, and the Chinese gentry became disenchanted. With the surrender of Japan, the transition back to British rule was smooth, for on the mainland the Nationalist and Communist forces were preparing for a civil war and ignored Hong Kong. In the long run the occupation strengthened the pre-war social and economic order among the Chinese business community by eliminating some conflicts of interests and reducing the prestige and power of the British.[29]

Restoration of British rule

British forces reoccupy Hong Kong under Rear-Admiral Cecil Harcourt, 30 August 1945

On 14 August 1945, when Japan announced its unconditional surrender, the British formed a naval task group to sail towards Hong Kong.[30] On 1 September, Rear-Admiral Cecil Harcourt proclaimed a military administration with himself as its head. He formally accepted the Japanese surrender on 16 September in Government House.[31] Young, upon his return as governor in May 1946, pursued political reform known as the "Young Plan", believing that, to counter the Chinese government's determination to recover Hong Kong, it was necessary to give local inhabitants a greater stake in the territory by widening the political franchise to include them.[32]

Transfer of Sovereignty

The Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the Premier of the People's Republic of China on 19 December 1984 in Beijing. The Declaration entered into force with the exchange of instruments of ratification on 27 May 1985 and was registered by the People's Republic of China and United Kingdom governments at the United Nations on 12 June 1985. 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 relinquish Hong Kong to the PRC with effect from 1 July 1997. In the document, the People's Republic of China Government also declared its basic policies regarding Hong Kong.

In accordance with the One Country, Two Systems principle agreed between the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China, the socialist system of People's Republic of China would not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and Hong Kong's previous capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years. The Joint Declaration provides that these basic policies shall be stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law. The ceremony of the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration took place at 18:00, 19 December 1984 at the Western Main Chamber of the Great Hall of the People. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office at first proposed a list of 60–80 Hong Kong people to attend the ceremony. The number was finally extended to 101. The list included Hong Kong government officials, members of the Legislative and Executive Councils, chairmen of The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and Standard Chartered Bank, Hong Kong celebrities such as Li Ka-shing, Pao Yue-kong and Fok Ying-tung, and also Martin Lee Chu-ming and Szeto Wah.

The handover ceremony was held at the new wing of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on the night of 30 June 1997. The principal British guest was Charles, Prince of Wales who read a farewell speech on behalf of the Queen. The newly appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, the British Foreign Minister, Robin Cook, the departing Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten, Chief of the Defence Staff of the United Kingdom, Field Marshal Sir Charles Guthrie, also attended.

Representing China were the President of the People's Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, Premier of the People's Republic of China, Li Peng, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. This event was broadcast on television and radio stations across the world.


Hong Kong was a Crown colony of the United Kingdom and maintained an administration roughly modelled after the Westminster system. The Letters Patent formed the constitutional basis of the colonial government and the Royal Instructions detailed how the territory should be governed and organised.

The Governor was the head of government and appointed by the British monarch to serve as the representative of the Crown in the colony. Executive power was highly concentrated with the Governor, who himself appointed almost all members of the Legislative Council and Executive Council and also served as President of both chambers.[33] The British government provided oversight for the colonial government; the Foreign Secretary formally approved any additions to the Legislative and Executive Councils[33] and the Sovereign held sole authority to amend the Letters Patent and Royal Instructions.

The Executive Council determined administrative policy changes and considered primary legislation before passing it to the Legislative Council for approval. This advisory body also itself issued secondary legislation under a limited set of colonial ordinances. The Legislative Council debated proposed legislation and was responsible for the appropriation of public funds. This chamber was reformed in the last years of colonial rule to introduce more democratic representation.[33] Indirectly elected functional constituency seats were introduced in 1985 and popularly elected geographical constituency seats in 1991. Further electoral reform in 1994 effectively made the legislature broadly representative. The administrative Civil Service was led by the Colonial Secretary (later Chief Secretary), who was deputy to the Governor.[33]

The judicial system was based on English law, with Chinese customary law taking a secondary role in civil cases involving Chinese residents.[34] The Supreme Court of Hong Kong was the highest court and ruled on all civil and criminal cases in the colony. During the early colonial period, extraterritorial appellate cases from other regions of China involving British subjects were also tried in this court. Further appeals from the Supreme Court were heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which exercised final adjudication over the entire British Empire.[35]


In 1861, Governor Sir Hercules Robinson introduced the Hong Kong Cadetship, which recruited young graduates from Britain to learn Cantonese and written Chinese for two years, before deploying them on a fast track to the Civil Service. Cadet officers gradually formed the backbone of the civil administration. After the Second World War, ethnic Chinese were allowed into the service, followed by women. Cadets were renamed Administrative Officers in the 1950s, and they remained the elite of the Civil Service during British rule.[36]


Victoria Harbour in 1988, showing the Bank of China Tower being built

The stability, security, and predictability of British law and government enabled Hong Kong to flourish as a centre for international trade.[37] In the colony's first decade, the revenue from the opium trade was a key source of government funds. The importance of opium reduced over time, but the colonial government was dependent on its revenues until the Japanese occupation in 1941.[37] Although the largest businesses in the early colony were operated by British, American, and other expatriates, Chinese workers provided the bulk of the manpower to build a new port city.[38]

By the late 1980s, many ethnic Chinese people had become major business figures in Hong Kong. Amongst these billionaires was Sir Li Ka-shing, who had become one of the colony's wealthiest people by this time.


During the 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong developed its own distinct culture. On top of the Common Law system, Great Britain and Hong Kong shared similar ways of life:

  • Afternoon tea was popular among the working population, who almost always had tea with milk.
  • Lines of the underground system, MTR, were named after places rather than numbered.
  • Roads were named after British royals, governors, famous people, and cities and towns across the UK and Commonwealth.
  • Cars drive on the left rather than right.
  • Christmas is celebrated as the second most important holiday.
  • Some idioms in Cantonese are directly translated from those in English. A Mandarin Chinese speaker may recognise the words but not understand the meaning.
  • Athletes representing Hong Kong regularly attended the Commonwealth Games.


Police confrontation during the 1967 leftist riots

During China's turbulent 20th century, Hong Kong served as a safe haven for dissidents, political refugees, and officials who lost power. British policy allowed dissidents to live in Hong Kong as long as they did not break local laws or harm British interests. The implementation of this policy varied according to what the senior officials thought constituted British interests and the state of relations with China.[39] The Canton–Hong Kong strike (1925–1926) was anti-imperialist in nature. The 1966 riots and Maoist-led 1967 riots, essentially spillovers from the Cultural Revolution, were large scale demonstrations fuelled by tensions surrounding labour disputes and dissatisfaction towards the government.[40] Although the 1967 riots started as a labour dispute, the incident escalated quickly after the leftist camp and mainland officials stationed in Hong Kong seized the opportunity to mobilise their followers to protest against the colonial government.[41] Chinese Communist members organised the Struggle Committee during the riots.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, wrote that it was "ironic" that despite Hong Kong being a symbol of China's humiliation by Britain, there was not one major movement started by the Chinese residents of the colony for its retrocession to China, even though there had been several upsurges of Chinese nationalism.[42] He explained:

In the 1920s, the working class Chinese of Hong Kong did not have a good reason to rally around the Hong Kong government, and they were more susceptible to appeals based on Chinese nationalism. Consequently, the call of the Communists was basically heeded by the working men, and their actions practically paralysed the colony for a year. By the [end of the] 1960s, however, the attempts by the Hong Kong government to maintain stability and good order which helped improve everyone's living conditions, and ... the beginning of the emergence of a Hong Kong identity, changed the attitude of the local Chinese. They overwhelmingly rallied around the colonial British regime.[43]

See also


  1. ^ No specific variety of Chinese was listed in legislation, but Cantonese was the de facto standard.
  2. ^ The office of Colonial Secretary was renamed to Chief Secretary in 1976.



  1. ^ Main Results (PDF). 1996 Population By-Census (Report). Census and Statistics Department. December 1996. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 October 2018. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  2. ^ a b "Hong Kong". International Monetary Fund. Retrieved 6 September 2018.
  3. ^ Gini Coefficient Fact Sheet (PDF) (Report). Legislative Council. December 2004. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  4. ^ Hong Kong (PDF). Human Development Report 2016 (Report). United Nations Development Programme. 2016. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 July 2017. Retrieved 7 September 2018.
  5. ^ A Draft Agreement Between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Future of Hong Kong (1984). pp. 1, 8.
  6. ^ "The Joint Declaration". Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau - The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. 1 July 2007. Retrieved 8 April 2021.
  7. ^ Cowell, Adrian (1997). The Opium Kings. PBS Frontline. Retrieved 16 May 2007.
  8. ^ Philip Robson (1999). Forbidden Drugs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-262955-5.
  9. ^ Paul L. Schiff, Jr. (2002). "Opium and its alkaloids". American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. Archived from the original on 21 October 2007. Retrieved 8 May 2007.
  10. ^ Trocki, Carl A. (1999). Opium, empire and the global political economy: a study of the Asian opium trade, 1750–1950. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-19918-6.
  11. ^ Carl A. Trocki (2002). "Opium as a commodity and the Chinese drug plague" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 July 2008. Retrieved 13 September 2009.
  12. ^ a b Tsang 2004, pp. 9–10.
  13. ^ a b Tsang 2004, p. 11.
  14. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 21.
  15. ^ Welsh 1997.
  16. ^ The Chinese Repository. Volume 10. pp. 63–64.
  17. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 11, 21.
  18. ^ Belcher, Edward (1843). Narrative of a Voyage Round the World. Volume 2. London: Henry Colburn. p. 148.
  19. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 12.
  20. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 29.
  21. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 32–33.
  22. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 33, 35.
  23. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 38–41.
  24. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 121.
  25. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 122.
  26. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 123–124.
  27. ^ Snow 2004, p. 81.
  28. ^ Tsai, Jung-Fang (2005). "Wartime Experience, Collective Memories, and Hong Kong Identity". China Review International 12 (1): 229.
  29. ^ Zhang, Wei-Bin (2006). Hong Kong: The Pearl Made of British Mastery and Chinese Docile-Diligence. Nova Publishers. p. 109.
  30. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 133.
  31. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 138.
  32. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 143–144.
  33. ^ a b c d Hong Kong Government (July 1984). Green Paper: The Further Development of Representative Government in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Government Printer.
  34. ^ Lewis, D. J. (April 1983). "A Requiem for Chinese Customary Law in Hong Kong". The International and Comparative Law Quarterly 32 (2): 347–379. Cambridge University Press. JSTOR 759499.
  35. ^ Jones, Oliver (2014). "A Worthy Predecessor? The Privy Council on Appeal from Hong Kong, 1853 to 1997". In Ghai, Y.; Young, S. Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal: The Development of the Law in China's Hong Kong. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. SSRN 2533284 .
  36. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 25–26.
  37. ^ a b Tsang 2004, p. 57.
  38. ^ Tsang 2004, p. 58.
  39. ^ Tsang 2004, pp. 80–81.
  40. ^ Cheung, Gary Ka-wai (2009). Hong Kong's Watershed: The 1967 Riots. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
  41. ^ Cheung, Gary (10 June 2016). "When the Cultural Revolution spilled over into riots in Hong Kong – and changed lives forever Archived 12 May 2017 at the Wayback Machine". South China Morning Post. Retrieved 10 July 2018.
  42. ^ Tsang 1995, p. 1.
  43. ^ Tsang 1995, p. 246.


  • Snow, Philip (2004), The Fall of Hong Kong: Britain, China and the Japanese Occupation, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, ISBN 0300103735.
  • Tsang, Steve (1995), A Documentary History of Hong Kong: Government and Politics, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, ISBN 962-209-392-2.
  • Tsang, Steve (2004), A Modern History of Hong Kong, London, England: I.B. Tauris, ISBN 978-1-84511-419-0.
  • Welsh, Frank (1997), A History of Hong Kong, London, England: HarperCollins, ISBN 9780006388715

Further reading

  • Carroll, John M (2007). A Concise History of Hong Kong. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7425-3422-3.
  • Clayton, Adam (2003). Hong Kong Since 1945: An Economic and Social History.
  • Endacott, G. B. (1964). An Eastern Entrepôt: A Collection of Documents Illustrating the History of Hong Kong. Her Majesty's Stationery Office. p. 293. ASIN B0007J07G6. OCLC 632495979.
  • Lui, Adam Yuen-chung (1990). Forts and Pirates – A History of Hong Kong. Hong Kong History Society. p. 114. ISBN 962-7489-01-8.
  • Liu, Shuyong; Wang, Wenjiong; Chang, Mingyu (1997). An Outline History of Hong Kong. Foreign Languages Press. p. 291. ISBN 978-7-119-01946-8.
  • Ngo, Tak-Wing (1999). Hong Kong's History: State and Society Under Colonial Rule. Routledge. p. 205. ISBN 978-0-415-20868-0.
  • Welsh, Frank (1993). A Borrowed Place: The History of Hong Kong. Kodansha International. p. 624. ISBN 978-1-56836-002-7.
  • Chan, Ming K. (September 1997). "The Legacy of the British Administration of Hong Kong: A View from Hong Kong". The China Quarterly. Cambridge University Press. 151 (151): 567–582. doi:10.1017/S0305741000046828. JSTOR 655254.

External links

  • "Official website of the British Hong Kong Government". Archived from the original on 24 December 1996. Retrieved 2013-03-26.