The "Pearl of the East" and an empire abandoned: why Hong Kong's past means so much to Britain's present
Illustration: Rachael Banks

On 30th June 1997, the Black Watch completed their last posting at the final jewel in Britain’s once-glittering imperial crown. As they marched in one final parade, bagpipes playing “Auld Lang Syne,” the crowd broke into spontaneous song. Indeed, it seemed more of a funeral than the triumphal handover of a colony. As an NBC news crew, covering the event, put it, “The Sun Sets On the British Empire.” 

The British relationship with Hong Kong has since the 2019 protests been a hot topic pretty much everywhere. As China prepares for what The Diplomat has described as “the second reunification with Hong Kong,” planning to impose a national security law based around one dropped following mass protests in 2003, the UK has stepped into action. A Conservative government, which for the last 10 years has institutionalised Labour’s “hostile environment” immigration policy, suddenly opened its arms to the UK’s former subjects; it has offered to approximate 2.35 million BNO (British National Overseas) passport-entitled or passport-holding Hong Kongers born before 1997 visa-free travel to the UK for 12 months. The British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, explicitly noted this extension from the usual 6-month period as a potential “path to citizenship”. This won equal praise and surprise from many global quarters.

The question, really, is why Britain felt such a responsibility towards a former colony. As Tak-Wing Ngo has noted, Hong Kong’s past has never been simple, and its colonial history hardly uncontroversial. Importantly though, the contested narratives about Hong Kong’s past do show the usefulness of history. If we wish to explain the current UK-China tug-of-war over the “Pearl of the East,” it is worth considering Hong Kong’s colonial past and its place in Britain’s very own positive narrative of empire.

Hong Kong and Britain 1841-1997: a very brief overview

British imperialism has shaped Hong Kong’s contemporary existence. In the 1820s and 1830s, the British East India Company cracked the problem of the Sino-European trade for the previous 300 years. China basically sold its goods for silver, which it imported on a globe-spanning scale from Japan to Peru. The result of any power trading with China effectively occurred at a deficit, failing to export its own goods to cover balances. The Honourable Company, however, worked out that this trade deficit could be reversed through the mass production of narcotics: opium. Opium created 12 million addicts in the process. Officials like Lin Zexu, a modern Chinese nationalist hero, were appointed to oversee a crackdown on British merchants and their Chinese middlemen.

The response of Britain was to send an expeditionary force in 1839. This initiated the First Opium War, or the First Anglo-Chinese War (the terms are interchangeable, the more neutral latter one was unsurprisingly common in Hong Kong textbooks pre-handover). In 1841, British forces seized and occupied Hong Kong. The 1842 Treaty of Nanking formalised this occupation. China ceded the island in perpetuity to the United Kingdom.

When the Second Anglo-Chinese War broke out in 1856, which Britain and France won, the former again leveraged more of Hong Kong’s territory. Final territorial additions, the so-called “New Territories,” came in 1898 in a 99-year lease (ending in 1997); Britain took advantage of China’s crushing defeat to Japan in 1894-5 to demand yet more territory, concessions and free ports in China, including in Hong Kong.

On The Edge of Revolution

Hong Kong, a Crown Colony perched on the edge of the “Sick Man of Asia,” came to have a significant part in Chinese history. Here, Sun Yat-sen, the father of Chinese nationalism uniquely revered in PRC and ROC (China and Taiwan), was educated. In 1941, to Britain’s humiliation, Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese, but reoccupied by Britain postwar. British diplomats refused the request of both the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek and the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 and 1943 respectively to hand over the territory. Once the Chinese Communist Party appeared likely to win the civil war, no possibility of handing over Hong Kong would transpire.

During the Mao era, 1949-76, Hong Kong was a frontier city. British officials, keen to keep the Americans on side, consistently described her as the “Berlin of the East” . Partly proving this thesis, mainland affairs enveloped the colony as a series of riots/uprisings exploded in 1967 in line with the Chinese Cultural Revolution. In the 1980s, negotiations began in earnest with Deng Xiaoping over the future of the territory; through these, Britain’s general relationship with a reopening China was in play.

Mindful that, without the New Territories, Hong Kong was not viable, the British aimed to safeguard their economic interests. In 1984, they signed the Sino-British Declaration. It was this declaration which included the famous “one country, two systems” mantra; Hong Kong was to become a “Special Administrative Region” of the PRC; it would retain much of its independent administration (a constitution of its own known as the Basic Law, a Legislative Council, a common law legal system on the British model) until 2047. In 1997, Britain finally handed the territory to the PRC.

Why Hong Kong matters: British Imperialism done right?

Beneath this sketch though, Hong Kong has found a continuing place within the narrative of British imperialism, its end and its supposed benefits. To a great extent, the UK’s image of Hong Kong was one of Britain as a civilising force, bestowing the benefits of imperial control. The statement of Lord Palmerston in 1841 that Hong Kong was a “barren island” became a source of pride. Britain transformed this “barren island” over its 150 year colonisation, first into her East Asian trade linchpin, and then during the 1950s-1970s to an increasingly advanced industrial centre. The endpoint of this was the great financial boom of the 1980s, turning Hong Kong into the centre of global banking which it remains today. 

A second pillar to this narrative of success was the notion of the rule of law. As opposed to the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong’s legal system instituted by the British created a system of fair play which melded with the growth in Hong Kong’s trade to generate a vibrant capitalist society, indeed one which has placed second on the Economic Freedom Index this year. Safeguarded by British law, businesses and individuals, Chinese or foreign, could flourish. In many ways, Hong Kong’s image was that of “Global Britain” before Boris Johnson. As Abby Whitlocke suggests it “reflected the pinnacle of capitalist achievement that Britain aimed to be known for, as it was a part of its identity as a world leader.

An Umbrella Movement banner at the Occupy Protests, 29 September 2014. Image: Sirlanz via Wikimedia & Creative Commons

The final pillar in this trio was that of government benevolence. Linked to the rule of law, Hong Kong flourished under a colonial administration whose commitment to laissez-faire capitalism linked with laissez-faire government. Often described as “a policy of benign neglect,” mandarins imported from London oversaw the sprawling city from on high, contracting alliances with various business leaders to manage public opinion. As the old Hong Kong joke went, “Power in Hong Kong resides in the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club; Jardine, Matheson & Co.; the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation; and the Governor—in that order.”

Power to the People

This benign autocracy was nonetheless responsive to the public: following the rioting and bomb attacks of 1967, where Red Guards sprung up in Hong Kong to imitate their radical fellows in the motherland, the Governor embarked on a consistent Sinicisation, or ‘Hongkongization’ of personnel, and a massive programme of social housing construction in the 1970s. This tale’s final chapter played out from 1992-1997: governor Chris Patten introduced limited democratic reforms and Legislative Council Elections, to the fury of Beijing, impatiently waiting to receive the territory.

Britain then, in 1997, was able to retreat the imperial arena with pride, bestowing a gift upon the Chinese government of a barren, empty island transformed into a free marketeer, freewheeling and liberal space which accounted for 18% of China’s GDP. In a sense, this ‘Hong Kong’ exists in the British mindset as a space where the unfortunate aspects of much of our colonial history can be glossed over, a clear example of British imperialism benefitting its subjects. 

The Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation Headquarters in Hong Kong. Image: David Drascic via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

Or was it?

Glossing over Britain’s colonial history is in fact the entire problem. One can challenge or debate pretty much every aspect of the above narrative. To start, Hong Kong’s economic foundations did not necessarily link up with Britain’s desires for its colony. The emergence of Hong Kong as a manufacturing and innovation hub during the 1950s and 1960s resulted from Hong Kongers evading a British unwillingness to invest in industrial upgrading, engaging in “guerrilla” factory work until the authorities accepted that they could no longer pretend Hong Kong was a trade mart servicing a rapidly declining empire. Indeed, Hong Kong’s transformation into a financial centre had a distinct purpose; Hong Kong finance was used to float the British pound, and to informally trade dollars below the rate set by the British Treasury until the local currency became free-floating in 1974.

When it comes to the rule of law meanwhile, we must remember this was a colonial rule of law. As Christopher Munn notes in this case, the rule of law was a racialised authority system protecting British rule, a rule which was made to appear laissez-faire by its economic policy but in fact was anything but. The standout evidence for this was in 1967, when in response to leftist demonstrations which quickly grew violent the Emergency Regulations Ordinance of 1922 was activated.

When, in October 2019, global British newspapers and news websites complained that emergency regulations were being used in the city to suppress protests for the first time since the colonial era, this is to what they were referring. British security forces engaged in a substantial programme of repression. This included prison terms for those possessing leftist literature and the notorious “deport and detain” policy, where convicts were deported to the PRC. Problem was, for the PRC to accept such convicts it would be implicitly accepting Hong Kong’s right to exist as a government over the territories it had leveraged in the 1800s. Beijing would therefore refuse such individuals, holding them indefinitely. 

The Mirage of Liberty

Far from “benign neglect” then, the history of Hong Kong saw an active colonial government, deeply involved in controlling society and extracting economic benefit from it. In order to do so meanwhile, the government also aggrandised rhetoric concerning the position of Hong Kong as a bastion of freedom, the “Berlin of the East” facing down the communist tiger, all the while quietly recognising the PRC in January 1950 and continuing a level of economic interaction to keep their possession viable. Reforms did indeed take place in 1992, but before then a democracy this most certainly was not.

Now, all empires are creative with the truth, so none of this is entirely unexpected. What is unique, however, about Hong Kong is the extent to which the image of Britain’s Hong Kong clearly has and had a pull on British politicians. Hong Kong was imperialism done right, an exercise in economic development and eventually relatively liberal political freedoms. The handover of a “Tiger Economy” in 1997 could be used to mark a watershed moment, going back to that NBC headline, as the sun set on an empire which could now be conveniently associated with one of its greatest hits.

The British media and politicians are so careful in describing affairs in Hong Kong perhaps to ensure Hong Kong remains their greatest hit. The Emergency Regulations Ordinance for instance received minimal BBC explanation in October. Instead, they mentioned just that “The ERO was last used in 1967 to help stop riots in the territory’s trading hub.” We wouldn’t want people looking up ‘Emergency Regulations Ordinance’ in too much detail now. Perhaps they’ll find out what happened in 1967? Or – even worse – how EROs were used in other parts of the empire from the Malayan Emergency to the Kenyan concentration camps?

Instead, Britain links itself to Hong Kong like few other territories. She focuses on her positive impact upon the “former colony”. Meanwhile, as with the 1980-1984 negotiations, she uses Hong Kong as a way to stake out her relationship with China. On 16th June 2020, the South China Morning Post reported that the 2012-2016 Hong Kong Consul-General will be reassigned as the UK’s ambassador to China. Observers expected him to link the current Hong Kong situation to an increasingly hawkish UK-US stance.

A protester holds up a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the Umbrella Movement, during pro-democracy demonstrations during the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive Election. Image: Iris Tong via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

The Mirage Revived?

Despite its inability to become the “Berlin of the East” again, Hong Kong’s image as a bastion of liberty juxtaposing autocracy has been revived. However, this cuts both ways. If Britain wishes to enjoy a self-image of benevolent colonial control in times past, she has to live up to its claimed humanitarianism in the present. This seemingly forces Conservative politicians, the current leader of whom holds more than a passing interest in imperial history, to extend an incredible offer of aid to Britannia’s favoured offspring.

All this perhaps then explains the disconnect seen between this British imagination and the Chinese picture.  There is obviously a Hong Kong protester’s vision of Hong Kong, a city under attack, whose democratic dream a rising autocracy may soon crush. Opposing this, the Chinese vision of a city built upon The Century of Humiliation, now refusing to integrate into a state whose superpower era is opening. As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying recently stated, “What kind of freedom did the UK give to Hong Kong during its 156 years of colonialism.

To these two visions though, you can add a third, the British image of Hong Kong, and its place in Britain’s fading empire. It is this conception of  imperialism done right, a Global Britain, which the UK perhaps seeks to recover in a new post-Brexit form; to this day, these ideas affect the UK’s mindset as Hong Kong slips into the PRC’s grasp.