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China and the Europeans

Before the Europeans set foot ashore in the 16th century, the Hong Kong area had already been inhabited for thousands of years. The first inhabitants of Lantau Island, among others, were fishermen. During the Middle Ages, the former port of Shek Pai was a thriving pirate's nest. Portugal was the first western country to have contact with the Chinese (1557). The Portuguese were allowed by the Chinese to set up a base on Macau near present-day Hong Kong.

Jesuits were allowed to settle in Zhaoqing, a village west of Guangzhou, in 1582. The first trade contact with the British was long held back by the Chinese, but in 1685 trade between China and Great Britain began. From that time, British ships of the East India Company sailed from the Indian coast to Guangzhou. British merchants were also allowed to establish trading offices in Guangzhou because of the export of tea and silk. By the end of the 17th century, a lively trade had developed between the British and also the French, later followed by the Dutch, Danes, Swedes and Americans. For the Chinese themselves, trade with Europeans was of little importance. It took place on the edge of the wilderness and, moreover, the Europeans were considered barbarians. The dramatic influence that the Europeans would ultimately have on China could not have been foreseen at the time. In 1757, a trade guild called Co Hong was given the exclusive right to trade with foreign countries. This monopoly inevitably led to much corruption and had major consequences for the Europeans. Many restrictions were imposed on European traders.

Some of them were:

The traders, of course, complained bitterly about these restrictions, which also changed from day to day. Nevertheless, trade flourished, although most of the profits went to the Chinese who wanted to be paid in silver.

Opium Wars

This was not at all to the liking of Western traders, and from 1773 the lucrative opium trade started, as demand for opium from China grew enormously. Emperor Dao Guang, concerned about the declining silver revenues and the increasing number of opium addicts, banned the opium trade in 1796.

But the foreign traders had other ideas and continued to trade, helped by the Co Hong and corrupt Chinese officials.

In 1839, a special official, Lin Zexu, was sent by the emperor to Guang Zhou to stamp out the opium trade. Meanwhile, Captain Charles Elliot had been appointed by Lord Palmerston to solve the problems with the Chinese. Within a week, however, Lin managed to surround the British and cut off the food supply. The British held out for six weeks but were eventually forced to hand over 20,000 chests of opium to the Chinese. The opium was destroyed in public.

Hong Kong British

After this, Elliot tried to re-open negotiations with the Chinese, but failed. The British sent an army under George Elliot (Charles Elliot's nephew) to take revenge, secure the trade agreements and occupy some islands. The army arrived in June 1840, blockaded Guangzhou and sailed northwards, occupied and blockaded a number of ports and towns on the coast and the Yangzi River, and eventually even threatened Beijing. The Emperor then began negotiations with the British, who subsequently withdrew from northern China.

In January 1841, after further military actions and threats, the Chinese agreed to the Chuan Bi Convention. Amongst other things, this allocated Hong Kong Island (although not yet officially) to the British. On 26 January 1841 Commander Gordan Bremmer claimed Hongkong Island. In late February, Charles Elliot attacked the Bogue forts at Humen, controlled the Pearl River and laid siege to Guangzhou. He then demanded six million dollars from the Chinese merchants. In August 1841, a strong British army sailed north and took the cities of Xiamen, Ningbo and Shanghai. When Nanking also threatened to fall, the Chinese were more or less forced to accept the Treaty of Nanking, which officially allocated Hong Kong to the British. However, the fighting was not yet over.

In 1856 another war broke out because of differences in interpretation of earlier treaties and the boarding of a British ship by the Chinese, who were looking for pirates. The British even received help from the French, the Russians and the Americans. This war ended with the Treaty of Tianjin which allowed the British to open a diplomatic post in mainland China. In 1859, a flotilla carrying an "official" British envoy and a minister plenipotentiary sailed up the Pei Ho River despite warnings from the Chinese. The Chinese took the boats under fire, killing many of the British. The British used this (provoked?) incident to invade China together with the French and march towards Beijing. The Chinese were forced to sign the Treaty of Peking (Beijing) and this gave the British, among other things, the Kowloon Peninsula and nearby Stonecutters Island. Forty years later, China again threatened to be overrun by the Western powers and Japan, and this resulted in the Second Treaty of Peking in June 1898. This stipulated that the British could lease the New Territories for a period of 99 years, starting on 1 July 1898 and ending on 1 July 1997.

Economic transformation

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hong Kong made the transition from a trading country to an industrial country. This change was further reinforced by civil war in China (1920/1930) and by the Japanese invasion of China, after which many wealthy Chinese fled to the safe British colony of Hong Kong. The turnaround became final during the Korean War when the United States declared an embargo on Chinese goods, thus economically restricting Hong Kong. To survive, however, Hong Kong was forced to focus increasingly on developing its banking, insurance and industrial sectors.

In 1949 the Chinese came to power in China and everyone assumed that they would take over the capitalist British colony. However, this did not happen because Hong Kong was too important economically for China. Nevertheless, in 1962 China sent 70 000 Chinese people across the border to settle in Hong Kong. In 1967, at the height of the Cultural Revolution in China, Hong Kong was in serious trouble because of rioting workers. Some bombs even exploded.

In the same year, the Chinese sent a military unit across the Hong Kong border, killing five policemen. The then governor of Hong Kong was about to flee when the Chinese withdrew. These uncertain times caused house, office and factory prices to plummet and trade and tourism to come to a virtual standstill. But China itself also suffered economically and peace returned at the end of the 1960s.

From British Crown Colony to Chinese Special Administrative Region

In September 1984, the British agreed with the Chinese that the entire colony would pass into Chinese hands in 1997. However, the agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, stipulated that there should be no change in the social, economic and political status of Hong Kong until 2047. In 1988 Beijing published the "Basic Law for Hong Kong", a sort of successor to the Joint Declaration which was similar to an official constitution.

Some of the provisions were:

Hong Kong retains the legal system and is guaranteed the right to own property.
Hong Kong citizens retain the right to travel in and out of the colony.
Hong Kong will continue to be a free port.
Hong Kong will remain an independent member of international organisations.
Hong Kong people retain the right to strike.

The democratic movement in China reached its high and low points simultaneously in 1989, when one million people protested in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. However, these protests were brutally suppressed and many were killed or imprisoned. Hong Kong also saw protests by some 500,000 people, and after the Tiananmen Square massacre more than 1 million people took to the streets. This protest had a major impact on the economy as shares dropped by an average of 22% in one day and much of the capital disappeared abroad.

The last five years of British rule were marked by increasing hostility from the Chinese towards the British. For example, the degree of democracy under the Basic Law was still unclear. The British demanded at least limited democracy. China reacted furiously and threatened to claim Hong Kong before 1997. The bomb only really exploded when in 1996 China announced that the democratically elected Legislative Council would be replaced by a council appointed by China. Due to the very uncertain situation, despite all agreements, about 60,000 people a year are currently fleeing Hong Kong and 40% of the population are planning to emigrate one day. Especially the rich and those with a good education want to leave quickly. Because of all this, there is a cloud of pessimism hanging over Hong Kong, because they are completely dependent on developments and the rulers in China. While day-to-day life in Hong Kong does not seem to have changed dramatically after the handover to China in 1997, there remains a concern that the influence of the Chinese administration is eroding the independence of the Hong Kong SAR. Foreign observers are therefore closely monitoring the democratisation process in Hong Kong. For example, the Basic Law foresees the possibility of a more democratic selection process of the Chief Executive in 2007 and a more democratic selection of the LegCo members in 2008, with direct elections as the ultimate goal. Chief Executive Tsang, in agreement with Beijing, presented plans in the autumn of 2005 to introduce some modest democratic improvements for 2007/2008. The democratic opposition, however, felt that these plans did not go far enough and voted against them in December 2005, thus failing to achieve the necessary 2/3 majority in LegCo. In March 2007, Tsang was re-elected as Chief Executive by an overwhelming majority.

On 1 July 2012, Chun-Yin Leung became the new Chief Executive. The head of state of Hong Kong is the President of China. See also the China history page. Elections were held in September 2016, resulting in gains for proponents of an independent Hong Kong. The Chinese government says it will not tolerate calls for independence. In November 2016, Leung announces he will not run for another term in the 2017 election due to family circumstances. In March 2017, Carrie Lam wins the election and becomes the new Chief Executive. Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong in June 2017 and warns Lam that any attempt to undermine China's authority will have consequences.

In June 2020, the Chinese Government passed a Hong Kong Security Law that would criminalise acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or outside forces. Critics said the law restricted protests and freedom of expression and curtailed Hong Kong's autonomy, while Beijing said it would provide stability. It was widely condemned internationally and criticised for effectively ending the "one country, two systems" principle enshrined in Hong Kong's Basic Law. Since its adoption, the authorities have used the law to imprison pro-democracy activists and politicians, expel opposition figures and raid media offices. In March 2021, Beijing reduced the number of directly elected seats in the Hong Kong legislature, continuing its attempts to contain political opposition and protests.


Bernstein, K. / Hong Kong

Groth, P. / Hongkong

Lyle, G. / Hong Kong
Chelsea House Publishers

Storey, R. / Hong Kong, Macau & Guangzhou
Lonely Planet

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated March 2024
Copyright: Team The World of Info