Is Hong Kong Part of China?

Is Hong Kong Part of China?

Short answer: Yes. But it’s more complicated than that.

Hong Kong is a small island off the south coast of China. Its spectacular skyline reflects its productive and profitable economy. If you go to the Happy Valley racecourse and watch the people rather than the horses you’ll see just how wealthy Hong Kong is.

Hong Kong is part of China, but it has an unusual deal with the government in Beijing, the capital. The reason is that from 1842 to 1997 the island was part of Britain’s empire. When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, Beijing agreed that Hong Kongers could continue to enjoy the freedoms and rights they had had under the British—which were much greater than what people had in Communist China.  “One country, two systems” was the key phrase. Hong Kong became part of China (one country), but it would run differently from everywhere else (two systems).

How did Britain come to rule Hong Kong, and what difference did it make? It began with tea. The British have a reputation for loving tea, and they earned it. In the 1800’s, the average Briton guzzled gallons every year.

But Britain was too cold to grow tea. British traders imported it, mostly from China. In order to get that tea, however, the British sold the Chinese opium. 

Eventually, the Chinese authorities had had enough of the foreign drug pushers. They seized opium from British ships, destroyed it, and banned the trade.

Then several things happened in quick succession:

  • The British got mad. They relied on the tax from selling opium. Besides, they wanted their tea.
  • The British therefore went to war with China. And won.
  • As part of the peace settlement, Britain took the island of Hong Kong. It remained a British colony for 155 years.

Hong Kong was nothing special in 1842. Britain turned it into a major commercial hub by making it the port for most of their trade with China.

In 1898, Britain decided it would help if they also had a slice of the mainland next to the tiny island. To make it look better they agreed a 99-year lease with China’s enfeebled government. That started a clock that would eventually lead to Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997.

Hong Kong didn’t really become the dynamic city we know today until after the rest of China became Communist in 1949. The new China cut trade with the island colony and the rest of the world, so Hong Kong had to find new ways of making money. They did so very successfully, in finance and manufacturing. The profits built the skyline you see today.

But the clock was ticking on Britain’s time in charge. The governments in London and Beijing cut a deal in 1984 that meant Hong Kong was going back to China, but with its freedoms intact for fifty years. There would be “one country” but with “two systems” of government.

It was an awkward deal for the Chinese government, which continues to censor free speech and facebook on the mainland. To Beijing’s credit, life in Hong Kong has gone on as before. In the last few years, however, the Chinese government has stepped up the pressure on its internal oddity, and squeezed some freedoms. The fabulous growth of Shanghai and other Chinese cities means that Hong Kong isn’t that special or valuable anymore.

So Hong Kong is likely to become more and more like the rest of the country, and people will stop asking whether it’s part of China. Or it may revolt in an attempt to preserve its freedom. Those seem to be the only two options.

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