Hong Kong, from World War II

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Hong Kong, from World War II

Hong Kong was colonized by the British in three phases. The island of Hong Kong was occupied by the British in 1841 and was later made a British colony under the Nanking Treaty in 1842. Subsequently, its territory was extended by the cession of the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 and the lease of the New Territories for ninety-nine years dating from July 1, 1898.

The British colonial regime, with an interruption from 1941 to 1945 when the colony was under Japanese occupation, was brought to an end when Hong Kong was returned to China on July 1, 1997. Because of the ninety-nine-year lease of the New Territories, post-World War II Hong Kong was described as a "borrowed place" living on "borrowed time" (Hughes 1976), being a British colony in the neighborhood of Communist China, which had never given up its sovereignty over the region. The status quo of Hong Kong prior to the 1997 handover hinged upon a delicate balance and compromise in terms of interests and power among the governments of China, Britain, and Hong Kong.

Contrary to the expectations of General Chiang Kaishek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887–1975), when the Pacific war came to an end in 1945, the British government was determined to accept the Japanese surrender in Hong Kong. After Harry Truman replaced Franklin D. Roosevelt as the president of the United States, Chiang Kai-shek lost his support from Washington. This, along with the imminent Communist threat in China, forced Chiang to accept the compromise of having Cecil Harcourt (1892–1959), the British commander, receive the surrender from the Japanese. Hong Kong thus resumed its status as a colony of the British Empire after World War II.

For much of its history, colonial Hong Kong was an arena of political struggle that had spilled over from mainland China. During the civil war in China and in the decades after Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government moved to Taiwan in 1949, Hong Kong continued to serve as a stage for the political rivalry between the Communists and the Nationalists.

At the same time, because of the Communist victory in China and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Hong Kong, then regarded as the "Berlin of the East," played its part in the Cold War. The United States perceived Hong Kong as a strategic location in its overall project of containing Communism. Hong Kong was "a rest and recreation oasis [for the American military] during the Korean and Vietnam wars" (Tucker 1994, p. 211). It was also a "window into the communist heartland" (Tucker 1994, p. 213), and a base for intelligence activity on China.

For China, Hong Kong played a role in the grander political struggle expressed in the Chinese ideological line "Patriotism and Anti-imperialism." The Soviet Union's approach to Hong Kong was inconsistent. Sometimes driven by ideological concerns, the Soviets denied Hong Kong's colonial status. At other times, the Soviet Union was driven by economic interests to try to capitalize, though far from successfully, on Hong Kong's growing economy.

The civil war in China and the subsequent Communist victory in 1949 brought Hong Kong a massive influx of refugees from the mainland. The opening of economic opportunities driven by the new international division of labor in the 1950s and 1960s, together with the arrival of capitalists (who brought with them both capital and know-how) and refugees (constituting a supply of cheap labor) from the mainland, launched Hong Kong toward export-oriented industrialization in the 1950s, when the city's entrepôt trade was brought to an end as a result of the trade embargo, imposed by the United Nations for sanctioning the shipment of arms and war materials in response to China's participation in the Korean War, against the People's Republic of China.

Paradoxically, Hong Kong's economic success was both a source of embarrassment to Communist China (Hong Kong, perceived by many as a place of economic and political freedom, was the destination of illegal migrants coming out of China) and an important "window" that allowed China to maintain limited contact with the outside world. When China launched its "Four Modernization" program (in agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology) in 1978, Hong Kong was conceived as an important agent in the facilitation of socialist economic reform.

Economic success did not bring colonial Hong Kong the expected political democratization, despite a rising demand since the 1970s from the people of Hong Kong for accountable governance and political participation. Gradual and cautious steps towards partial democratization were triggered by diplomatic talks between China and Britain about Hong Kong's political future in the 1980s. The process of democratization was, however, compromised when China insisted on an institutional convergence to its design of "One Country, Two Systems."

The idea of "One Country, Two Systems" was a product of political pragmatism. At a time when capitalist Hong Kong was prosperous and Communist China was eager to reform its economy, the Chinese government made a promise to the people of Hong Kong. In order to ease their fear of a Communist takeover, China promised Hong Kong that, as stated in the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, its existing way of life would "remain unchanged for fifty years," from 1997 onwards. That is, Hong Kong would become a "special administrative region," would remain a capitalist system, and would continue to be "stable and prosperous" despite its return to China.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, with China deepening its market reform and experiencing rapid economic growth, along with Hong Kong's massive relocation of its manufacturing activity to the mainland, the tension between capitalism and socialism eased. But the economic recession after the Asian financial crisis and rising social and political discontent since 1997 (dramatically expressed in a major protest with reportedly 500,000 people joining an anti-government demonstration on July 1, 2003, the sixth anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China) did point to one problem—partial democratization had hugely undermined the legitimacy of the government. Problems in Hong Kong after 1997 were not about contradictions between the systems of capitalism and socialism. Rather, they had their roots in politics, particularly in the tension between China's authoritarian approach to Hong Kong and the Hong Kong people's demand for democracy.

see also China After 1945; Chinese Diaspora; East Asia, European Presence in; Empire, British, in Asia and Pacific; Opium; Opium Wars.


Chiu, Wing Kai, and Tai-lok Lui, eds. The Dynamics of Social Movement in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2000.

Hughes, Richard. Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time: Hong Kong and Its Many Faces, 2nd ed. London: Deutsch, 1976.

Share, Michael. "The Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and the Cold War, 1945–1970." The Cold War International History Project Working Paper Series. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Available from http://wwics.si.edu/.

Tucker, Nancy Bernkopf. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States, 1945–1992: Uncertain Friendships. New York: Twayne, 1994.