British Hong Kong

British colony and dependent territory from 1841 to 1997

British Hong Kong was a colony and dependent territory of the United Kingdom from 1841 to 1997, apart from a brief period under Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945 during World War II. The colonial period began with the occupation of Hong Kong Island in 1841 during the First Opium War. The island was ceded by Qing dynasty in the aftermath of the war in 1842 and established as a Crown colony in 1843. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when the UK obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898.

[T]he British colonial government turned Hong Kong into an economic miracle by doing nothing. ~ P. J. O'Rourke

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  • Hong Kong, like Taiwan, has always been an example of what a free China might look like. As Chinese were starving and stumbling from one bloody five-year tragedy to the next during the latter half of the 20th century, Hong Kong was thriving under a system that can only be described as the anthesis of the mainland’s.
  • This relative lack of external pressure, together with the rise of laissez-faire liberalism at home, caused many a commentator to argue that colonial acquisitions were unnecessary, being merely a set of “millstones” around the neck of the overburdened British taxpayer. Yet whatever the rhetoric of anti-imperialism within Britain, the fact was that the empire continued to grow, expanding (according to one calculation) at an average annual pace of about 100,000 square miles between 1815 and 1865.28 Some were strategical/commercial acquisitions, like Singapore, Aden, the Falkland Islands, Hong Kong, Lagos; others were the consequence of land-hungry white settlers, moving across the South African veldt, the Canadian prairies, and the Australian outback—whose expansion usually provoked a native resistance that often had to be suppressed by troops from Britain or British India. And even when formal annexations were resisted by a home government perturbed at this growing list of new responsibilities, the “informal influence” of an expanding British society was felt from Uruguay to the Levant and from the Congo to the Yangtze. Compared with the sporadic colonizing efforts of the French and the more localized internal colonization by the Americans and the Russians, the British as imperialists were in a class of their own for most of the nineteenth century.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • The tension between these conflicting aims is perhaps particularly acute in the late twentieth century because of the publicity given to the existence of various alternative “models” for emulation. On the one hand, there are the extremely successful “trading states”—chiefly in Asia, like Japan and Hong Kong, but also including Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria—which have taken advantage of the great growth in world production and in commercial interdependence since 1945, and whose external policy emphasizes peaceful, trading relations with other societies. In consequence, they have all sought to keep defense spending as low as is compatible with the preservation of national sovereignty, thereby freeing resources for high domestic consumption and capital investment. On the other hand, there are the various “militarized” economies—Vietnam in Southeast Asia, Iran and Iraq as they engage in their lengthy war, Israel and its jealous neighbors in the Near East, and the USSR itself—all of which allocate more (in some cases, much more) than 10 percent of their GNP to defense expenditures each year and, while firmly believing that such levels of spending are necessary to guarantee military security, manifestly suffer from that diversion of resources from productive, peaceful ends. Between the two poles of the merchant and the warrior states, so to speak, there lie most of the rest of the nations of this planet, not convinced that the world is a safe enough place to allow them to reduce arms expenditure to Japan’s unusually low level, but also generally uneasy at the high economic and social costs of large-scale spending upon armaments, and aware that there is a certain trade-off between short-term military security and long-term economic security.
    • Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000 (1987)
  • We got used to dividing the world into industrialized countries and developing countries – rich and poor. However, four East Asian tigers would soon disrupt our worldview. The British colony of Hong Kong and the city-state of Singapore did the opposite of all other countries, and opened their economies wide, without trade barriers. The experts claimed that free trade would knock out the small manufacturing sectors they had, but, on the contrary, they industrialized at a record pace and shocked the outside world by becoming even richer than the old colonial master, Britain. Taiwan and South Korea learned from this and began to liberalize their economies with amazing results. Their rapid growth took them from being some of the poorest countries in the world to some of the richest in a few generations. It was a global wake-up call because it was so easy to compare what the Chinese in Taiwan achieved compared to the Chinese in Mao’s China, and what the Koreans in the capitalist south created compared to the Koreans in the communist north. In the mid-1950s, Taiwan was only marginally richer than China. In 1980, it was four times richer. In 1955, North Korea was richer than South Korea. (The north was, after all, where mineral resources and power generation were located when the country was partitioned.) Today, South Korea is twenty times richer than North Korea.
    • Johan Norberg, The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World (2023)
  • As governor, I experienced the vitality of life in a booming and free Asian city, saw routinely the best and worst aspects of human nature, and was made to revisit some of the principles in which I have always believed but to which I had rarely given much thought previously. In the darker hours of occasionally fretful nights I found myself face to face with the moral dimensions of political action to a greater extent than ever before.
    • Chris Patten, East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong on Power, Freedom and the Future, Pan Books, second edition, 1999, p. 3
  • Nevertheless, it is true that on 1 July 1997 Hong Kong became the only example of decolonization deliberately accompanied by less democracy and a weaker protection of civil liberties. This was a cause for profound regret, especially for the departing colonial power. But it was China's doing and China's decision. I am pleased that Britain narrowly avoided complicity in the dishonourable act of denying the citizens of free Hong Kong what they had been promised in 1984.
    • Chris Patten, East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong on Power, Freedom and the Future, Pan Books, second edition, 1999, p. 83

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