The History of Hong Kong

Throughout modern history, world powers have
repeatedly fought over this strategically valuable land. Its name means “fragrant harbor” in
Chinese, but it could also mean “City of Change.” This is the story of Hong Kong. The first wave of people to arrive in large
numbers had fled Genghis Kahn and his brutal Mongol hordes. They chose Hong Kong because of its advantageous
geography. 150 million years ago, volcanic eruptions
formed a deep, but narrow harbor with an island on the other side. This orientation protected ships from storms
and allowed vessels to come and go quickly from either side. With 230 islands, the region was the perfect
hangout for pirates. One of the most successful in history was
Madame Ching who – alongside her husband – commanded 80,000 buccaneers and a fleet of 800 ships. In the early 1800’s British merchants found
Hong Kong the perfect port to unload the opium they had brought from India. With addiction rampant, the Chinese government
cracked down. British-controlled warehouses at Canton were
raided, 20,000 chests of opium were destroyed, and the entrance to the Pearl River was blocked. The British responded forcefully and destroyed
the blockade, occupied the island of Hong Kong, and sent their fleet up the Pearl River
to intimidate the Daoguang Emperor. When negotiations failed, they attacked and
occupied Canton. After a year of war throughout China, the
British captured Nanjing and extracted favorable peace terms. To get them to leave, China paid a large sum,
surrendered control of Hong Kong, and allowed foreign access to other harbors including
Shanghai, which is now the world’s busiest port. Back in Hong Kong, Christian missionaries
started schools and churches to spread Jesus. But slinging religion and drugs wasn’t enough
for the British, they wanted to make more money. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, a man named
Hong Xiuquan was having visions that he was the younger brother of Jesus. He gained a huge following of peasants and
launched a long and bloody rebellion against the Qing dynasty. With China engulfed in civil war, the British
had their opening. This time they teamed up with the French to
invade the mainland, sack Beijing, and burn down the emperor’s summer palace. They used this victory to negotiate control
of the Kowloon Peninsula, giving the British both sides of Hong Kong’s main waterway,
now called Victoria Harbor. A few years later the British extracted a
99-year lease of the surrounding islands. As Hong Kong westernized — the differences
between it and the rest of China grew. One of widest divides was in education. While studying at Hong Kong College of Medicine
Sun Yat-sen and a group of friends plotted their successful revolution to takedown the
Chinese Empire. Today, Sun is considered the Father of the
Republic of China. Fast-forward to 1941. The same morning Japan attacked the United
States at Pearl Harbor, it launched an assault on Hong Kong, which the British surrendered
after an 18-day battle. For three years the Japanese violently ruled
the territory under martial law. Of the 1.6 million people who lived there
when the invasion took place, more than one million had fled or were deported by the time
the Japanese were defeated to end the second world war. After Japan left, the British reestablished
control. Despite the decolonization happening in the
rest of their empire, the British were determined to keep Hong Kong even if it was just a skeleton
of its former self. China’s civil war in 1949 helped turn that
around. The Communist Party’s victory forced Shanghai’s
capitalist class to flee to Hong Kong. This transformed it into a thriving manufacturing
center. But working conditions were poor and squatter
camps grew out of control. 53,000 people were left homeless when a fire
ripped through one of these shantytowns. The housing shortage led to the embrace of
the high rises that now define the Hong Kong skyline. When war broke out in Korea in 1950, the west
blocked all trade with China. With access cut off to mainland markets, Hong
Kong’s economy suffered a sharp downturn that amplified social unrest. To recover, Hong Kong’s capitalists turned
to high-tech electronics and finance. In the 1970’s and 80’s, with Hong Kong
finally thriving again, China demanded that Britain hand over the entire territory in
1997 when the 99-year lease over the New Territories was set to expire. Wary of the Chinese, but eager to avoid a
breakdown in relations, Britain agreed to surrender the New Territories, the Kowloon
Peninsula, and Hong Kong island itself, but only after giving them a bill of rights and
forcing China to agree to a “One Country, Two Systems” policy. This gave China control, but allowed Hong
Kong and Macau, the other special administrative region, to keep their capitalist economic
and political systems for 50 years. In the two decades since the handover, Hong
Kong’s economy has remained open and strong, but China has begun to assert more control. In 2014, massive demonstrations successfully
blocked Beijing from implementing national education in Hong Kong’s schools, although
protesters failed to pressure the central government to allow them to directly elect
their own Chief Executive. Instead, Hong Kongers choose from a handful
of candidates approved by Beijing. As we move ever-closer to the date of full
reunification with the rest of China in 2047, many questions remain unanswered about Hong
Kong’s future. Thanks for watching. For more on China check out our mini-documentaries
on China’s domestic megaprojects, and the many they plan to build in the rest of the
world. Until next time, for TDC, I’m Bryce Plank.

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