British colonialism exits Hong Kong

By William Pomeroy, in People's Weekly World,
28 June 1997

After 155 years of foreign occupation, the last imperialist bastion in Asia is being scratched off the map. On July 1 the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong returns to the rightful sovereignty of China.

For the Chinese people the British colonial presence in Hong Kong has endured as their longest and most bitter humiliation, because of the way in which it came about. It was torn away from China through what is known as the Opium War of 1839-1842, a British war of aggression conducted when Chinese authorities of the time sought to impede the importation of huge quantities of opium from India by British trading companies, which deliberately used the drug to render millions of Chinese people as addicts, employing it as an instrument of commercial penetration, one of the most despicable imperialist acts on record.

The Opium War forced the ceding to Britain in 1842 of the island of Hong Kong and adjacent small islands at the mouth of the Pearl River on China's southeastern coast.

Subsequently sections of the mainland itself, Kowloon in 1869 and the New Territories in 1898, were added to the colony, which was developed as the main British base in the imperialist scramble for the China market. The last addition was acquired through a 99-year lease and it is the expiration of that lease this year which has led to the negotiated return of Hong Kong to China.

Called Britain's most successful colony, Hong Kong rose from crude beginnings to become a present-day economic "tiger," packed with small-scale industry that has put the 'made in Hong Kong" label into the world's markets, a focal point for a huge import-export trade, serving as one of the world's major finance centers, its 6.4 million population having greater wealth per head than Japan or Germany.

The growth has occurred mainly since the Chinese revolution and particularly during the great economic development of China in recent decades. Hong Kong has been called in those years "the gateway to the West for China's trade," made possible by China's forbearance of its use as an imperialist enclave. According to the British Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, "half of all Chinese exports are handled by Hong Kong companies, and 22 percent of China's entire trading is done with Hong Kong."

From Hong Kong's strongly established business and banking groups over $3 billion of investments have been made in China and commitments in various stages of agreement totaling $12 billion are in the making. In fact, China has been using Hong Kong as a fund-raising center for its development projects. Any concern that Chinese rule would smother such economic resources is certainly ill-founded.

When the British withdrawal agreement was negotiated in 1984, with the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong signed by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it was obviously made with a British expectation of continued economic benefit.

The deal was masterminded by then-British Ambassador Percy Cradock in collaboration with the big British conglomerate interests and Chinese capitalists in Hong Kong.

In the Declaration, China pledged to maintain the present system in Hong Kong for 50 years under a "one country, two systems" policy," promising an elected legislature to "rule Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy." Above all, the Joint Declaration seemed to have been based by both countries on economic considerations.

Since that time a cold war type of a political factor entered the picture, following the appointment of a new colonial governor for the colony to administer the period up to the change-over. It was not an experienced diplomat but a British politician and former Member of Parliament, Chris Patten, whose promising Tory career had suffered setback in electoral defeat. His Hong Kong appointment had the earmarks of a consolation prize to enable him to build a political comeback, and his connections have evidently been with the imperialist sector that wants to employ the Hong Kong structures, even after the return, to influence the political as well as economic development of China.

As governor, Patten heavily stressed the alleged democratic character of Hong Kong, contrasting it with a portrayal of Chinese authoritarianism. The Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing in 1989 was seized upon to magnify the contrast, with Hong Kong made the base for exiled Chinese dissidents and annual anti-Beijing demonstrations on "Tiananmen Day." The cordial exchange that had marked the 1984 Joint Declaration was severely soured by this atmosphere.

Patten greatly exacerbated the situation by injecting new democratic features into the colony. Throughout its existence it had never had representative government, everything being appointed, governor, executive and legislative councils, all officials.

Patten proclaimed an elective legislature and held an election in 1995. The party that won the majority of seats, the Democratic Party, is a right-wing, anti-Beijing party that opposes Chinese rule.

This step, which would put an anti-Communist legislature in office after the return to China, was obviously calculated to cause the maximum problem and disruption for China.

A major provocation, it naturally produced anti-Patten and anti-British feeling among Chinese leaders and people. The Beijing government reaction was to set up its own "provisional legislature" that would be recognized on July 1.

This 60-member body was chosen Dec. 21 by a selected group of 399 Hong Kong citizens who traveled to adjoining Shenzen province for the procedure.

Official ceremonies for Hong Kong's transfer to China take place July 1 but just prior to these the Chinese government is holding a ceremony to inaugurate the "provisional legislature." Britain has refused to attend that ceremony and so has the United States. They are the only two powers to boycott it. Despite U.S. pressure for them to follow suit, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have announced that they will attend it.

Said the Australian foreign minister, Alexander Downer: "Gone are the days when we would wait to see that Britain and the U.S. did before deciding our own agenda. We are an Asia-Pacific country. Britain is a European country. Our future, our destiny, is in the Asia-Pacific."

Read the Peoples Weekly World
Sub info:
235 W. 23rd St. NYC 10011
$20/yr - $1-2 mos trial sub

Tired of the same old system: Join the Communist Party, USA
Info:; or (212) 989-4994; or

World History Archives Gateway to World History Images from World History Hartford Web Publishing