As I sit down to write about the history of Hong Kong, it would be easy to put a black hat on Great Britain and a white hat on China. England is often cast in the role of the power-hungry colonizer who sent ships across the world in order to take advantage of less powerful nations. After all, didn’t Great Britain take possession of Hong Kong after a war fought to secure their ability to sell addictive drugs to the Chinese people?
Yet, a deeper look into the history of Hong Kong, thanks to the book, A Modern History of Hong Kong by Steve Tsang, gives us a view of the complexity of the situation.
First of all, our society loves to judge our past history by modern standards. Even so, I believe that the sale of opium to the Chinese people against the will of the Chinese government was morally wrong (even though opium was a legal medicine in England at the time.). I also have a moral problem with gunboat diplomacy (by the way, in this case there were literal gunboats).
Yet, I have to remember that my country is also a former British colony. Our much revered “Boston Tea Party” might be considered an act of domestic terrorism. Our rebellion against our colonial government was possibly a violation of the teachings of scripture laid out in Romans chapter 13. If our Revolutionary War played out differently, our founding fathers might have been a footnote in the history books as the conspirators of “the failed insurrection of the thirteen colonies.”
Yet, here we are.
Hong Kong was given to Great Britain in 1842 after the First Opium War. The surrounding “New Territories” were then leased to Great Britain for 99 years after the Second Opium War. The territory that Britain took possession of contained no cities, just a few farm towns and fishing villages. The concept of the English driving native peoples off of their homeland is not applicable in this case.
In the 1800s, China, which was once the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet, found itself stuck in the Middle Ages after the Industrial Revolution happened without them. By 1842, their military technology was simply no match for the British. China had to compromise with the West again and again as they simultaneously faced internal political struggles and civil wars.
No matter what you think of the birth of Hong Kong, this British-ruled colony soon became a safe haven for millions of Chinese during decades of death, starvation, and destruction.
During the Taiping Rebellion of 1850 to 1854, as many as 30 million Chinese were killed. Thousands more men, women, and children who would have been murdered were spared because they made it safely to Hong Kong and were protected by the British.
During the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, 136 Protestant missionaries and 53 children were killed, as well as 47 Catholic priests and nuns. In addition to this, over 33,000 Chinese Christians were martyred. This death toll would have been much higher, yet many missionaries and Chinese Christians made it successfully to the protection of the British in Hong Kong.
As the body count skyrocketed during the Chinese Civil War, thousands of Chinese families fled for their lives and found safety in the Crown Colony.
Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” forced Chinese farmers to abandon their crops in order to pursue industrialization. The result was that by 1962 as many as many as 55 million Chinese had starved to death. Once again, Hong Kong was a refuge for those who were starving.
During Mao’s many anti-rightist campaigns and the brutal Cultural Revolution, artists, journalists, educators, and religious leaders were being slaughtered by the thousands. Many fled to Hong Kong in the 1960s and early 1970s. This resulted in a renaissance in music, art, film, and the culinary arts in Hong Kong as the best and the brightest of China fled to the safety provided by the British in Hong Kong. Also, many churches were started in Hong Kong by pastors and their families who had fled Communist China.
Hong Kong has also served as a safe haven for groups other than Chinese. For example, during the Vietnam War, over 50,000 Vietnamese fled to Hong Kong to escape the atrocities happening in their homeland.
After the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, where thousands of peaceful protestors were mowed down by tanks and machine guns, many of these students avoided capture and fled to the safety with the English provided in Hong Kong.
When the British government handed Hong Kong over to The Peoples Republic of China on July 1, 1997, many viewed it as a righting of a wrong. The foreign colonizers were finally gone. Hong Kong was back in the hands of its rightful owners.
Yet, for many in Hong Kong, the handover came with a realization that this was the end of an era. No longer would the British Crown provide a shelter from war, famine, and persecution.
During the Umbrella Movement of 2014, there were very few non-Chinese faces in the crowd as Hong Kong students were pelted with tear gas for demanding civil rights. Yet, their hunger for democracy was a legacy given to them by the nation which gave the world the Magna Carta.
To be honest, through most of the history of the British rule of Hong Kong, there was an attitude of paternalism that could be easily be labeled racism. Clearly, the British ruled Hong Kong from an attitude of superiority.
Was Britain an evil colonial power? Or was it a benevolent government who created one of the greatest cities in the modern world?
Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2007)