From Desolate Backwater to Economic Powerhouse: Hong Kong, the thorn in Beijing’s side

If there is to be a challenge to the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, it would be a good bet to suggest that its origin will be in Hong Kong.

Since being returned to Beijing in 1997, the vibrant economy at China’s southern periphery has seen its relative freedoms stifled by an increasingly interfering party apparatus, with political appointments now being vetted directly from the capital.

The erosion of Hong Kong’s political rights culminated in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, in which Joshua Wong became the face of hope for democracy in China.

Thousands poured onto the streets of Hong Kong in 2014 as part of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement

With a GDP per capita ranked at an impressive 8th in the world, coupled with a proactive civil society fostered under British rule, it is little wonder that Hong Kong at times seems destined to pursue a development separate from the mainland.

In theory, this is exactly what should happen. When the British ceded sovereignty to China just over 20 years ago, Beijing agreed to a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle which would leave untouched Hong Kong’s capitalist economy and way of life for at least half-a-century. That the reality has been somewhat different only heightens the chances of serious unrest in the ‘autonomous territory’, unrest that could spread far and wide given the right political and economic climate.

All of this is a far cry from when Hong Kong was subsumed into the British imperial fold, after the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. At the time, Hong Kong was nothing but a ‘desolate, rocky region, frequented by pirates and a few fishermen’. (Woodhead, 1945)

This 1846 Ordnance Survey map – shortly after the British takeover – depicts the stark desolation of Kowloon, now home to the Hong Kong metropolis

Quickly becoming an important port and trading station, Hong Kong was formally leased to Britain for 99 years in 1898. This proved a propitious move for it meant that Hong Kong was freed from, to quote Sun Yat-Sen, ‘a rule of unequivocal seclusion and tyranny’ that defined the dying years of the Qing Dynasty.

The famed Chinese nationalist Sun claimed to have gained his revolutionary ideas from Hong Kong, an ‘intellectual birthplace’ separate from the ‘oppressed’ government of the mainland.

Sun Yat-Sen, often seen as the Father of modern China

Certainly the ‘rule of law, the maintenance of peace and order, and the absence of a customs tariff’ propelled Hong Kong’s development. At the 1921-22 Washington Conference – convened amongst other things to decide upon the future of the Chinese territories leased to foreign powers – Arthur Balfour of the British delegation hailed one of his country’s prized possessions:

The position of the British colony of Hong Kong in the world’s trade is unique, and without parallel. It is a free port except for a duty on wines and spirits; it has relatively few important industries; it is one of the greatest shipping centers in the world; it is the distributing point for all the enormous trade of south China, and about thirty percent of the entire foreign commerce of China. The conditions of Hong Kong in its relations to commerce are in every way excellent.

Yet by the 1930s Hong Kong was still little more than a fragment of what it was destined to become, ‘the barren pirate stronghold’ not yet eradicated. The Japanese occupation in World War Two (WWII) – following the British surrender on Christmas Day 1941 – brought with it the plunder and brutality that typified the advance of Emperor Hirohito’s zealous forces, abruptly postponing any further advancement.

Indeed, one need only look at the topographic mutilation of Hong Kong to understand its rate of progress in the second half of the 20th century. The traditional grid pattern of single-storey buildings interspersed with areas of open space has made way for a concrete metropolis, where skyscrapers tower above the choking highways, casting a shadow on the pedestrians beneath.

Left: Kowloon in 1935 (Source: NCAP) Right: Kowloon in 2017 (Google Earth)

Hong Kong’s impressive economic development was not, however, accompanied by an equal expansion of political and civic freedoms. Indeed, the British refrained from encouraging or allowing participation politics, belatedly introducing some democratic reforms only when their century-long lease was drawing to a close.

Still, compared with the communist mainland Hong Kong seemed an oasis of free expression and representation on exiting the British yoke. That the British have failed to press the CCP on honouring the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ mantra originally promulgated by Deng Xiaoping is a disappointment. It places a stain on an otherwise remarkable achievement; turning a provincial backwater into a prosperous financial centre complete with a world-famous stock exchange, in the process improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

That Hong Kong’s population fought for democratic concessions from the British, and had seemingly secured them with the 1997 transfer agreement to CCP overlordship, naturally engendered optimism. This has only made Beijing’s crackdown the more frustrating, even if the most sober observer would admit an air of inevitability about the whole thing.

The return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule was marked by a lavish handover ceremony on 1st July 1997

Some have argued that there are unique set of ‘Asian Values’ that advocate order, authority and economic stability over democracy, universal rights and political representation. Even if one buys into this contentious argument, the most recent generational change in Hong Kong has raised the spectre of a new threat to the status quo, and an uplifting of the heavy boot of the CCP.

Beijing’s crackdown on ‘dissent’ continues apace. Joshua Wong has just received a second prison sentence relating to his role in the pro-democracy movement in 2014. Simultaneously, stories have emerged of the kidnapping of Gui Minhai – a dual Chinese-Swedish citizen and Hong Kong based publisher of controversial books about CCP leaders – purportedly by agents of the state.

So, the seed of Hong Kong’s autonomy is bearing decreasing quantities of fruit, and Beijing’s promise of fifty years of minimal interference apparently disregarded in its entirety.

Joshua Wong: part of a generation unwilling to defer to Beijing’s wants

The youthful, energised and well-educated generation that comprise Hong Kong’s millennials will not stand for it. For every charismatic leader that is stifled, like Joshua Wong, more are ready and willing to assume responsibility for leading the fight for the autonomy promised by both the British and Beijing.

It would be wise of the CCP not to enrage this slumbering political leviathan, otherwise a whole new type of piratical venture will be emerging from China’s southern shores.


Beeson, M. Regionalism & Globalization in East Asia: Politics, Security & Economic Development (2007)

Calder, K.E. & Fukuyama, F. (eds.), East Asian Multilateralism: Prospects for Regional Stability (2008)

Woodhead, H.G.W. ‘Shanghai and Hong Kong: a British View’ (Foreign Affairs, January 1945)



China Yet to Avenge ‘Century of Humiliation’: Western leaders must be wary

British Prime Minister David Cameron is in China, trying to thaw frosty relations with the world’s second biggest economy and conclude a series of favourable trade deals that will become increasingly important in the coming decades. His visit is to be succeeded in the coming week by that of Joe Biden, the US Vice-President, who will travel to Beijing at the conclusion of a short East Asian tour.

The Chinese media is sceptical about Cameron's promise to 'respect' China
The Chinese media is sceptical about Cameron’s promise to ‘respect’ China

The visits come at an awkward moment, with China’s leadership acting increasingly belligerently against the West and its allies, notably Japan. Last week’s announcement of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering disputed islands in the East China Sea, was the latest example of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy not making life simple for its geo-strategic competitors.

One of the CCP’s biggest grumbles is the perceived hypocritical preaching of Western leaders over internal Chinese affairs, including (but not restricted to) human rights, political corruption and democracy. This adds to a general resentment against the West for its role in creating the most embarrassing period in Chinese history.

Known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’, the period from the start of the First Opium War (1839) to the CCP victory in the Chinese Civil War (1949) is an important watershed in Chinese history, when outside influences undermined the country’s sovereignty and great power status.

Chinese ports already hosted sizable international business enclaves by 1839 and the Qing Dynasty was in decline. Nevertheless, the opposition of the British Empire to Chinese attempts to control the flow of opium into the country led to a chastening three-year war, ended only by the first of the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ which saw China cede Hong Kong, not to mention a plethora of trading rights, to Britain.

Britain's much-lauded navy defeated the Qing fleet
Britain’s much-lauded navy defeated the Qing fleet

Demands for further trade privileges within China by both the British and French (and to a lesser extent the Americans) led to the Second Opium War (1856-60), during which Chinese palaces and cultural sites were sacked and looted. The Convention of Peking that concluded the war led to the cession of further Chinese territory to Britain, France and Russia, as the Europeans threatened to do to China what they would later do to Africa.

With a economically weak and politically decaying imperial dynasty, China was left vulnerable to foreign influences for the remainder of the 19th century, a matter compounded by the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5, during which the Japanese wrenched away Chinese influence over Korea, ready for an assault on Manchuria in the coming decades.

The Japanese would remain the scourge of China in the first half of the 20th century and there remains an underlying anger from the Chinese towards the Western powers for not reigning in the Japanese when they had the chance and thus preventing the atrocities that occurred in the 1930s and ’40s. Even during WWII, despite some Allied bombing missions and air-drops, it was the Soviets that offered the Chinese the most on-ground assistance against the Japanese invaders.

Close relations between the West and China's arch-rivals Japan fuels resentment
Close relations between the West and China’s arch-rivals Japan fuels resentment

A point that is often made is the hypocrisy of the West in decrying China’s supposed ‘alternative development’; i.e. the economy develops but the political system remains authoritarian and undemocratic.

The Chinese are justified in pointing out that during the ‘Century of Humiliation’, the Western powers had no qualms about exercising economic imperialism, bureaucratic corruption and human rights abuses, the consequences of which were felt in China. To now accuse the Chinese of similar actions is inherently hypocritical.

More pointedly, the West needs China to sustain its economic recovery and to ensure future global security. Cameron has rightfully noted this by grovelling to Chinese business leaders and trumpeting the benefits of a Chinese-EU free trade deal, even when his own party questions Britain’s commitment to mainland Europe.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has promised to raise the issue of Chinese ‘provocation’ in the East China Sea. He has called for the CCP to scrap their ADIZ as a means of preventing further antagonism of Japan. Such a statement, whilst well-intentioned, is only going to anger China further. It is just another example, the Chinese will claim, of Western powers interfering in their domestic affairs and thus undermining their sovereignty.

The Chinese have not forgotten the 19th century; for the sake of peace and stability in East Asia, it is important the West do not either.