by Austin Chen
Hong Kong had a complicated history over the past 160 years: from its origin as a simple fishing village to a British colony to its transformation into an influential business and trade center. To discuss the history of Hong Kong, it is not impossible to mention Great Britain. Admittedly, Great Britain brought wealth, democracy, freedom, and modernization to this initially barren island. However, the way Great Britain took Hong Kong into its hand is disputable because the Chinese Empire and Great Britain did not exchange this tract of land in a mutually beneficial relationship. But instead, Hong Kong was occupied by Great Britain under three unequal treaties, each of them enlarged the area of Hong Kong.
The three unequal treaties are the Treaty of Nanking and the Conventions of Peking, respectively. Back in the 1800s, because of Great Britain’s supremacy in maritime traffic and Hong Kong’s unique geographical position of being a fine harbor, Great Britain coveted Hong Kong. After Great Britain’s victory in the First Opium War (1842), Britain successfully signed the Treaty of Nanking with China. In Article III, both empires agreed that China would cede the Island of Hong Kong to Great Britain perpetuity (“APPENDIX” C1).
Great Britain’s ambition was not satisfied by the Island of Hong Kong. In the Lease of Kowloon (March 1860), the Government of the City of Canton, standing on the British Government’s position, pointed out that a sub-district of Kowloon, which is close to the Island of Hong Kong, was largely unrestricted. Therefore, many “thieves and outlaws” living in Kowloon committed crimes against the British people living on the Island of Hong Kong (“APPENDIX” F1). Therefore, considering the safety of British citizens, Great Britain wanted to lease the Kowloon peninsula and cultivate it.
This lease was not long-lasting: in the same year, the Anglo-French Allied Force attacked Peking, the capital city in China, and destroyed the Old Summer Palace, a prestigious royal garden. Only seven months later, the Chinese Empire had no choice but to agree to the first Convention of Peking, which canceled the lease of Kowloon. And Great Britain could hold both the Island of Hong Kong and Kowloon perpetually.
The life of the British subjects on the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon was flourishing and prosperous until the 1890s. Then, in the Spring of 1894, bubonic plague swept Hong Kong. The death toll continuously increased for four or five months, which frightened the British subjects. Some contemporary scholars even believed that half of the population left the Colony (Sayer 73). This severe plague raised people’s awareness of Hong Kong’s overly dense living environment. It motivated Great Britain to incorporate more land into the colony to accommodate the increasing population in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
As Great Britain did not have any solid reason to expand its colony beyond Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, Britain became relatively inactive in keeping its relationship with China in the 1890s. (Sayer 71). Coincidently, in 1894, Japan invaded China (called the first Sino-Japanese War), while Japan won this war and signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This result was a total embarrassment to the Chinese Empire because, for so long, China has been proud of spreading its own culture and the Buddhist tradition to Japan since the Tang Dynasty. More importantly, after the defeat in the Second Opium War, Chinese scholars, some royal members, and patriots came up with the idea to “learn from foreigners to compete with them.” In the past 30 years, China wanted to learn the occidental way to strengthen itself, yet the defeat in the Sino-Japanese War showed that this attempt was unsuccessful.
The defeat directly showed the inability of the Chinese military, such that Western powers began a new round of leasing territories: in 1898, Germany occupied and leased Kiaochow by violence, while in the same year, Russia occupied Port Arthur. These treaties boosted Great Britain’s morale to expand its colony: British and China agreed on the Second Convention of Peking in 1898 and exchanged ratification shortly. In the convention, Great Britain leased the New Territories for ninety-nine years (“Convention” 295). Therefore, the territory of Hong Kong further enlarged from two districts of the Island of Hong Kong and Kowloon to three districts, including the New Territories. Furthermore, this convention gave Great Britain the sole jurisdiction in the New Territories.
This lease triggered a massive repercussion in the New Territories, and local villagers organized a campaign (or the Six-Day War) against Great Britain. According to a translated notice written by those villagers, “we hate the English barbarians, who are about to enter our boundaries and take our land, and will cause us endless evil.” Though villagers tried their best to raise “anti-British” funds and defend their homeland, the villagers were defeated in six days with significant casualties due to their weak military strength compared with Great Britain. After this short turmoil, Great Britain took the New Territories in control and did not expand further. (Hase 46)
From 1841 to 1898, Great Britain gained three contiguous tracts of lands in the southernmost part of China through the Treaty of Nanking and two Conventions of Peking, so these three lands added together to become what we call Hong Kong today.
“APPENDIX IV - A SELECTION OF CONSTITUTIONAL DOCUMENTS, CONVENTIONS AND TREATIES,” Historical Laws of Hong Kong Online, accessed June 15, 2021, https://oelawhk.lib.hku.hk/items/show/3631.
“Convention between the United Kingdom and China Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 4, no. 4, 1910, pp. 295–296. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2212073. Accessed June 15 2021.
“July 1898–March 1899: The Road to War.” The Six-Day War of 1899: Hong Kong in the Age of Imperialism, by Patrick H. Hase, Hong Kong University Press, 2008, pp. 39–60. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1xwbjg.8. Accessed June 15 2021.
Evans, D. M. Emrys, editor. “SIR HENRY BLAKE 1898–1903.” Hong Kong 1862-1919: Years of Discretion, by GEOFFREY ROBLEY SAYER, Hong Kong University Press, 1975, pp. 80–88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jc5sk.14. Accessed June 15 2021