Today we remember that exactly 121 years ago, on the 9th of June in 1898, the United Kingdom and the Qing Empire signed the lease known as the Convention between the United Kingdom and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory (中英展拓香港界址專條).
The United Kingdom hereby extended its Hong Kong territory by another 300.000 square kilometres (115.831 square miles). The United Kingdom deemed an expansion of territory as necessary to protect its colony of Hong Kong. To this end, the United Kingdom “leases” (without paying rent) the New Territories from the Qing Empire for a period of 99 years until June 30, 1997, which was deemed “as good as forever.”
The lease, however, did not last forever. On July 1st 1997 the entirety of the Crown Colony, including Hong Kong and Kowloon, was reverted to Chinese rule.
In the spring of 1898 the Qing was forced to sign several other similar leases with the Germans, the Russians and the French over the territories of Kiaotschou Bay ( 膠州灣/胶州湾) for the Germans, Dalian (大连/大連) and Port Arthur (旅順口/旅顺口) for the Russians and Kwang-Chou-Wan (廣州灣/广州湾) for the French, while also signing away Weihaiwei (威海衛/威海卫) in Shantung to the English.
It should be clear that the Qing Empire did not sign this lease out of free will. After all, which Empire would give away territory to other nations for free? It was the humiliating and unexpected defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War, known in Chinese as the 甲午海战 (jiawu hai zhan), that signalled the weakness of China (even with its now modernised military) to the predators and vultures circling above its head. Like sharks smelling blood, the various Western powers swarmed China and endeavoured to divide it among themselves. Indeed, the famous cartoon published on 16 January 1898 from Le Petit Journal says more than a thousand words.
British Rule in Hong Kong
One might think the British were “bringers of civilisation” who raised Hong Kong from a sleepy fishing village to a booming metropolis. One might even think Hong Kong was better off simply because of the “benevolent and progressive” British rule. Indeed, in this train of thought one might even think that Britain, “marching at the head of civilisation,” managed to justly subordinate Asia to Europe in Hong Kong. After all, civilising the dark Asian continent is the divine mission of all Europeans. This section shall serve as a reminder as to what kind of ruler the Briton truly was in Hong Kong.
A Brief Overview of Early Colonial Hong Kong until 1900
The area of Hong Kong came into British possession after the First Opium War (1839-1842), a war of aggression initiated by the United Kingdom when the Daoguang Emperor of China ordered Viceroy Lin Zexu in China’s own “war on drugs” to seize and destroy 1000 long tons of British opium. British merchants had for several decades been smuggling opium grown in India to China to balance the British trade deficit. As a reaction to the “insult” the Chinese had given by destroying the opium, the United Kingdom declared war, and brutally bombarded Chinese coastal cities, sailing up its rivers, blocking major ports and disrupting trade. The Chinese Empire was powerless against modern weaponry and utterly unprepared against a naval invasion. To end the war the Treaty of Nanking was signed; besides paying indemnities, opening trading ports and guaranteeing extraterritorial rights for British expatriates, Hong Kong was also ceded for an indefinite length of time. As is apparent, Hong Kong was a colony taken forcefully by British powder and lead in a war to open China’s markets and to facilitate the British drug trade in China.
In the early days of the colony the British were unrealistically optimistic about the future of Hong Kong. They saw the colony as the centre of British power in China, the capital of Anglo-China as it were, and it would soon rival ancient Carthage, Tyre and even Rome in terms of population and magnificence. These romantic predictions did not come to pass, the colonisers had grossly overestimated the importance of Hong Kong as an offshore entrepôt. Instead of growing like they had wished, Hong Kong began to stagnate. In this stagnation and disillusionment the colonisers began to believe that in order to further secure and expand British power, the Chinese people as well as their government required further “chastisement” in the form of a good thrashing.
Hong Kong attracted criminals, vagabonds, outlaws and all troubles they bring with them like moths to a fire. The colonists became increasingly outnumbered as more and more “undesirable” Chinese migrated to the colony. The Friend of China argued that “the fewer Chinese inhabitants in the colony the less will be the trouble.” It continued: “indeed, with the exception of those actively engaged in commerce, servants, and mechanics, we are better without Chinamen.” Personally, I would argue that if they didn’t want China in the colony, they shouldn’t have built the colony in China.
The period of stagnation ended in the 1850s. Hong Kong found its role as a depot for the opium trade as well as being a hub for the so-called “emigration business,” or in other words: the coolie trade. Both forms of trade were strictly illegal, and was accompanied by the same kinds of abuse as is often associated with human trafficking. The cruelty, the overcrowding and other abuses came to the light, and it forced the colony to regulate the trade. Furthermore, Hong Kong grew in importance as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), the single most bloody rebellion in human history, forced many Chinese merchants to migrate to the colony. Victoria Harbour grew to have “the largest annual turnover in tonnage of any port in the world.” In essence, the sickly, faltering colony was nursed to health by the United Kingdom on the twin teats of human trafficking and drug dealing and then raised to wealth by feeding on the sap of chaos, war and famine.
Nevertheless, the greed of the coloniser could never be satisfied, Chinese officials had undermined and circumvented the original concessions, the Cantonese people still had dignity and pride, an ill state of affairs that required rectification. Indeed, a second war needed to be fought to “engender the widespread conviction among the Chinese, of their inferiority in the warlike, or in any other arts, to the foreigners.” (Friend of China, 11 May 1843, 34)
This war did come to pass, and is referred to as the Second Opium War. As the name suggests, this too was a war fought to secure the British Opium trade in China. This war was fought when China was in a state of Empire wide crisis as the horrors of the Taiping Rebellions swept through China. The British, sensing opportunity to strike, took advantage of the weakened state of the Qing and launched their assault once more on the Qing Empire. The Qing State lost and that resulted in, among several other demands, the cession of Kowloon to the British in 1860. In 1865, the HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation) too began to have a role to play in the opium trade, the bank was founded for the purpose of managing the opium revenue. Hong Kong continued to exist and develop in a stable manner until 1898, when the colony gained the New Territories.
Being Colonised and Participating in Ones Colonisation
Chinese residents of Hong Kong were subject to nightly curfews, registration schemes, annual censuses and police searches. The British laws were fickle and increasingly criminalised daily activities, forcing many Chinese to come in contact with the uglier side of British law, especially since the prosecution rate in Hong Kong’s criminal courts was 3 times that of England and Wales. The abysmal conditions and the pervasive idleness of the British regiments stationed in the colony would result in the soldiers frequently unleashing their frustrations (violent, sexual or otherwise) against the local Chinese population. Their excessive violence remains a stark reminder as to who was master and who was slave. This relation is also made thoroughly apparent in how most interactions in the colony went, whether personal or printed. The Europeans communicated with the Chinese in a condescending, patronising manner, exacerbated by the fact that the Europeans communicated with the Chinese in English, making little to no effort to learn the language of the locals. As is the case in any colony, the more affluent colonists made good use of their status and took many Chinese coolie servants for cooking, carrying their litters, opening the doors and, of course, to bed. As many of the colonists were men, it was common to have relations with Chinese prostitutes, live-in mistresses and “protected women.”
Yet, one has to wonder, is the plight of the people of Hong Kong merely a result of Western Expansionism alone, or were the locals complicit in their own colonisation? A story of colonisation is often not only the result of the oppression of the coloniser, but also the collaboration of the colonised. The people of Hong Kong were complicit in the maintenance of the colony and all of its structures. It is not fair to see the people of Hong Kong merely as a passive agent to which bad things happened, in the same way it is unfair to say Hong Kong was built by the British. On the contrary, despite systematic barriers for people of Chinese descent in Hong Kong, such as being racially segregated and barred from high positions in the Hong Kong government, many gifted individuals succeeded in navigating the colonial system, and in one way or another, built great fortune for themselves and their descendants.
So, if one wishes truly to denounce colonialism, one needs to do more than to point the finger at the coloniser; one needs to realise that three fingers point back at oneself and reflect upon what we did to facilitate our own suffering. We must and will never make the same mistakes again… not as long as we remember.
Keep your eyes on this blog if you want to remember.
- “Convention between the United Kingdom and China Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory.” The American Journal of International Law 4, no. 4 (1910): 295.
- Munn, Christopher. “Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong.” Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013. National Library of Canada.
- Wu, Yiching. “Prelude to Culture: Interrogating British Rule in Early Colonial Hong Kong” Dialectical Anthropology 24, no. 2 (1999), pp. 141-170