The territory of Hong Kong, officially known as the Hong Kong Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, has a fascinating and tumultuous history on the world stage. While we know it today as a global hub of international trade and exotic exports, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, given its divisive history, it’s a bit surprising that it even still exists.
Hong Kong’s Origins
The Hong Kong we know today is home to over 7.4 million people spread across 426 square miles and stands as the fourth most densely populated region in the world. But getting there was a long road, with its story beginning as far back as BCE 214.
Even then, the Hong Kong island region had been occupied by humans for thousands of years. Early settlers migrated into the region from inland China and used their knowledge of agriculture to begin farming the land. These settlers wouldn’t be independent for long, as the dominant Chinese government—the Qing dynasty—saw the value of the region and integrated the island into the fold. The Hong Kong area would change hands over the years as Chinese dynasties rose and fell, each laying new claim to the territory.
Its value came from its location: Hong Kong was situated at a strategic point between the Pearl River Delta and the South China Sea, making it an ideal port for maritime trading. This defining feature was the key driver of Hong Kong’s development over the years, particularly as the region began to draw international interest.
The Rise of International Trade
Beginning in the early 1500s, Portuguese and European merchants began trading in Hong Kong, bringing significant prosperity to the region. This prosperity would continue over the next several hundred years, sparked by European interest in Chinese products—spices, silk, tea, and porcelain.
And while the Chinese markets didn’t care as much for European goods, there was one product that caught their attention: Indian opium. European traders funneled so much opium into the area that Hong Kong (and China as a whole) realized that they were facing a full-fledged opioid crisis.
In response, the Emperor sought to snuff out the opium trade altogether by prohibiting the trade of opium and forcing his subordinates to destroy all existing opium stockpiles. This culminated in a complete stop to all foreign trade in 1839, something that didn’t sit well with British merchants.
The Opium Wars
The British responded to this trade embargo with aggressive military action, resulting in the First Opium War. This conflict raged for three years until the Qing dynasty surrendered, ceding control of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in 1842.
Under new rule, Hong Kong experienced an economic upturn that greatly improved the region, aided in part by an influx of wealthy Chinese who fled to Hong Kong in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. Unfortunately, hostilities over the opium trade weren’t resolved, and tensions between the British and the Chinese escalated to the point of a Second Opium War in 1856.
This war lasted four years, ending in another Chinese defeat, which did little to stop the expansion of Hong Kong as a port of international trade. The rapid economic growth brought on by the administrative infrastructure of British rule combined with the influx of wealthy Chinese made Hong Kong a desirable region for international investors, despite its political troubles.
This international interest would set the stage for Hong Kong as a region of great global significance, if it survived that long.
The World at War
The beginning of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 spelled further trouble for the region.
Although the governor of Hong Kong declared Hong Kong a neutral zone during the war, the Japanese army attacked Hong Kong on December 8, 1941—the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a result, Hong Kong was occupied by Japanese forces for nearly four years until the British re-took control in 1945.
Hong Kong’s population suffered during this occupation, but it bounced back thanks to further influxes of those fleeing from the Chinese Civil War and those who fled from the Communist Party takeover of China in 1949. This influx of population would be a crucial part of Hong Kong’s post-war restoration.
Hong Kong’s Growth and Modernization
In the 1950s, Hong Kong saw tremendous advancements to its infrastructure and public services. While Hong Kong’s production capabilities were limited compared to those of mainland China, Hong Kong’s diverse international population gave it an advantage in the service economy. It wasn’t long before Hong Kong established itself as a global center for shipping, finance, and trade.
But this economic growth did little to ease political tensions in the area that had been growing throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, it was decided that Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese control when Britain’s lease ended, triggering a mass emigration of citizens concerned for the future of their civil liberties. In 1997, Hong Kong was officially transferred back to China after 156 years of British rule.
Today, Hong Kong is supposedly an autonomous entity, but there are serious concerns about Hong Kong’s being truly independent from China, as was promised in the transfer. But as we’ve seen, Hong Kong’s history is characterized by political unrest—and against all odds, the territory always seems to endure, no matter what challenges it faces.