Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies & Director of the China Policy Institute, wrote A Modern History of Hong Kong, detailing how Hong Kong developed from “a barren island with hardly a house upon it” to one of the world’s most spectacular cosmopolitan metropoles. (1)
Tsang covers the period of British rule in Hong Kong from 1841 (Opium War) to 1997 (Hong Kong is receded to China). Change in cultures does not happen overnight. It is a complicated and gradual process. Nevertheless, there are “turning points” in the history of cultures when the governance changes.
For the Chinese people living in Hong Kong the first change was after the Opium War ended and the British established it as a Crown Colony on June 26, 1843. Britain made Hong Kong into a major naval station and the principle base for trade. The British worked with the Chinese locals to build the colony into a major banking, investment, and global shipping center.
British rulers were discriminatory and unfair. Some of these restrictions reminded me of the unfair rules during apartheid in South Africa. One big difference though – Britain offered Rule of Law and Judicial Independence. This kept some of the governors from committing more atrocities than they otherwise might have. There was a second war from 1856 -60. After that peaceful ‘segregation’ ensued. Chinese leaders emerged to take care of their temples, hospitals, and police.
Another turning point came when Sun Yat-sen came to power and the imperial government of mainland China ended. A period of strong nationalism gripped the Chinese in Hong Kong. The British colony helped in Sun Yat-sen’s revolution by acting as a forward base for staging uprisings, acting as a center for propaganda, giving financial support, and serving as a safe haven for revolutionaries to retreat to after unsuccessful uprisings.
There followed a period of War Lords, World War 1, and the Boxer Rebellion. Hong Kong continued to be affected by the politics on the mainland. The communist party formed in 1921. A strike in 1925 led to a division in politics and in the Hong Kong Chinese community.
Britain’s rule reached its zenith between the World Wars. So far, communism had been contained on the mainland. Chiang Kai-shek was ruling. Then in WW2 the Japanese attacked China. They ruled for 3 ½ years, very cruelly, and after the war the communists came to power. In 1949 China officially became a communist country. (The People’s Republic of China – PRC) However, Mao and Zhou Enlai did not want to take Hong Kong by force. They really had no desire to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs. The British decided to cooperate with Mao.
Though the British tried to enact the ‘five traditional Chinese requirements for good government’, the remarkable thing is that they did so without democratic institutions. The people were only allowed to have a say through local bodies. The British tried to maintain peace but without giving up its rule.
Another turning point with major consequences for the people in Hong Kong was the Cultural Revolution that occurred as a Confrontation erupted in 1967. The effects spread to Hong Kong where the Chinese had to choose between supporting Communist China and the colonial government “which had provided stability, good order and the general conditions for them to live and work without facing persecution or over oppression.” (2) While they were considering this, they reflected on their sense of identity. They chose their own way of life. They forged ‘an imagined community’ of Hong Kong. They were proud to be Chinese, but they did not want to live under communism.
From 1982-84 negotiations took place that led to a Joint Declaration which provided the framework for governance until Hong Kong was ceded back to China in 1997. The Chinese played a tough game, but eventually the PRC committed to the Basic Law. They created the first SAR (Special Administrative Region) out of Hong Kong.
In 1989, Hong Kong Chinese sympathized with the student movement that resulted in the hard line communists’ repression of their protest. All around the world people saw the images of students at Tiananmen being crushed under the tanks. At this point, the Chinese in Hong Kong became worried about their future. The Convergence of the two governments for the remaining years before Hong Kong was handed over to China became largely under Communist China’s control. (Sarah, Angie, and Mary at Tiananmen Square)
This enabled the PRC to recover sovereignty from the British while not destroying “those capitalists for their knowledge of business and technology, their access to finance, their skill in managing large projects, and their control of the transportation and telecommunication infrastructure.” (3) They devised the policy of ‘one country, two systems’. They did not kill the goose that was laying the golden eggs.
On June 30, 1997 Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region.
How have things fared since then?
Steve Tsang wrote a follow-up article “Commitment to the Rule of Law and Judicial Independence” in which he gives his ideas on whether or not Hong Kong as a SAR will continue to prosper. (4)
Hong Kong, he says, is essentially a Chinese city. It remains to be seen whether or not 156 years of British imperial rule will continue to have an effect. What still sets Hong Kong off from the PRC is the existence of the Rule of Law and the Independent Judiciary. The PRC remains a Leninist political system and the incident at Tiananmen Square shows that the communists do not like to be challenged. Will the Chinese government continue to uphold Hong Kong’s liberal and capitalist system? Most people take for granted that the rule of law and independent judiciary have worked. Will the PRC allow the Chinese in Hong Kong to continue their way of life? It seems in their best economic interests to do so.
Since Tsang wrote his book in the early 2000’s, Hong Kong has continued to prosper and be a world center for business and finance.
Many changes have taken place in China. At the risk of being overly simplistic, I’d like to say that one of the big changes was technology – specifically personal communication devices. The Chinese government is having a tough time with propaganda now that an ever increasing number of people have internet and cell phones. By the time I visited Beijing in 2010, practically everyone I saw had a cell phone. It remains to be seen how all of this will work out. The government still uses violence to control Christians for example (or any other dissidents).
Reflection: Some type of Rule of Law is necessary for order in society. But with rules the culture just exists or survives. For flourishing a Rule of Love needs to be added. How can we as Christians help with that?
In 2009 my daughter Angie was teaching at a university in China. In 2010 I decided to go and visit her. Visions of young people being pulled apart while tanks were crushing them filled my head. Stories I had read of the 40,000,000 people who perished under Communism clouded my thoughts. I never in my whole life thought I would go to a Communist country.
Angie assured me that things had changed and one of her best students (“Lynn”) would accompany us as we toured. I prayed to get over my fears and took the plunge. I am so happy I did; my life really changed in many ways from that visit. My daughter Sarah went along on this trip too.
The pictures below tell the story. They illustrate 3 ways that I changed my thinking: people figure out ways to survive and be happy; people are the same everywhere for the things that are important; I should not criticize someone until I “have walked a mile in their shoes”.
Mary and Sarah visit Angie in Beijing.
We have a little fun while we’re there. (Lynn, Sarah, Mary, Angie in case you couldn’t tell.)
I took Lynn’s picture with a statue of Mao (can’t find it). Here she is at Tiananmen. She knows that the Communist regime has been oppressive. But her grandparents grew up when the Japanese were cruelly governing. They think of Mao as a liberator and a hero. I was humbled as I thought how good it is to stop and see things through the eyes of others.
We visit 3 Self Church. Indian, Korean, Chinese, Irish/German. A spiritual experience I will never forget was singing a praise song with 800-900 people in Chinese. There were so many nationalities present but we were all one in Christ. This was the first time I ever heard a woman preach.
The girls have more ways of showing their joy in the Lord. Lynn and Angie.
Olivia and Sarah.
Children are the same everywhere.
How can you not love these people?
Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
(1) Steve Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong. London, New York: I. B. Taurus & Co., Ltd., 2007. ix.
Steve Tang. “Judicial Independence and the Rule of Law in Hong Kong. Hong” found at: https://www.hkupress.hku.hk/pro/con/1161.pdf