A Modern History of Hong Kong

Steve Tsang

I.B. Tauris 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006 https://dannyreviews.com/
A Modern History of Hong Kong is clearly written and easily read; it is fully referenced, but unobtrusively so. Tsang offers a mix of narrative and analysis, and covers social and economic history as well as politics. The approach seems balanced, and it is obvious when in a few places Tsang takes positions which he realises are disputed.

The rest of this review is not a summary, but a selection of ideas and facts which seemed notable to someone reading their first history of Hong Kong.

The creation of Hong Kong was tied up with the First Opium War and the treaty of Nanking, and then the Second Anglo-Chinese War. There was a good deal of contingency involved: the original plan involved a different island entirely and the Kowloon accession was tacked on as afterthought.

The issue of representation cropped up early, with the crown refusing expatriate demands for representation partly through recognition of the unfairness to the Chinese majority. And some people already foresaw something of the momentous consequences of the British acceptance of a 99-year lease on the New Territories instead of outright cession.

Though Hong Kong's early court and police systems were discriminatory and of poor quality, they offered at least the formal attributes of "rule of law" and "equality before the law". This was highlighted in the case of baker Cheong Ahlum, alleged to have tried to poison the entire expatriate community in 1857, during the Second Anglo-Chinese War.

Hong Kong's raison d'etre was as a trading base for British merchants and, despite early industrial endeavours, trading remained central. Chinese merchants soon outweighed expatriate ones, while an influx of Chinese from outside massively outnumbered the original inhabitants. Socially, segregation was mostly de facto rather than de jure: as well as expatriates and Chinese, there were Eurasians, Indians, Parsees and Portuguese. The Chinese community, largely left to itself, developed its own "middle class" and governing institutions: Man Mo Temple Committee, the Tung Wah hospital directors, and the District Watch Committee, which oversaw a Chinese police force.

Hong Kong was an agent of change in China, providing a source of Western ideas, an example of Western government, and a refuge for leaders and reformers. "Hong Kong found itself sucked into the whirlpool of politics in China, and Guandong in particular." The British authorities thought otherwise, but the strike of 1922 was driven by economic concerns, not politics: "it is more accurate to say the seamen's strike inspired both the Kuomintang and the CCP than the other way around". Sparked by events in Shanghai, the Canton-Hong Kong strike/boycott of 1925-1926 was much more serious, ending only when it lost the support of the Canton government. It highlighted divisions in the Hong Kong Chinese community and the dependence of Hong Kong on China.

The period between the wars saw the zenith of the British Empire and stability in Hong Kong. Communists were contained, and attacked only when they were a local threat. There was economic growth, with increasing manufacturing. Much of the pressure to improve working conditions, social welfare, and education, came from expatriate and outside reformers: there were campaigns over child labour and mui tsai indentured domestic servants. There was rapid population growth, but still few long-term inhabitants.

The rapid fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese destroyed the myth of Imperial supremacy. The occupation saw local resistance and wartime planning in London for a return to power; after negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek this came in force, with a fleet including two aircraft carriers. Post-war recovery was helped by a competent military administration and the return as governor of Young, who acknowledged "the spirit of 1946" and made no attempt to force a return to the "status quo ante".

There were uncertainties in London over Hong Kong's future, and there was some bluffing with Chiang Kai-shek. After the victory of the communists in the civil war, Mao and Zhou Enlai showed no desire to take Hong Kong by force, and the British made a strong commitment to its defence. During the Korean war "both the Chinese and the British governments deliberately ignored the fact that their respective forces were engaged in combat in Korea when they dealt with Hong Kong".

Hong Kong's economic take-off was driven by industrialisation, with a major contribution from textile entrepreneurs fleeing Shanghai. A short-term immigrant mentality, however, led to an emphasis on light industry and to job insecurity (unions were considered too political). The government was not laissez faire, but stuck to providing infrastructure and services and education. There was a shift towards finance and increasing intertwining with the Chinese economy, with Guandong and the Pearl River delta providing a hinterland.

The introduction in 1950 of controls on the border with China helped the development of a separate Hong Kong identity, with the settling down of the population, markedly different paths of development, and the rise of a new generation. The confrontation and disturbances of 1967 brought home the advantages of stable government, while "pro-PRC euphoria" gave way as understanding of the Cultural Revolution sank in. And an influx of largely rural illegal migrants from China in 1978-1980 — over 400,000 — highlighted the social divide. The flexibility of the government about passports and identities meant that it was not necessary for people to make a choice, and many maintained "complex and convoluted" identities as Chinese.

Hong Kong achieved the five traditional Chinese requirements for good government: efficiency and lack of intrusiveness came early, fairness later, honesty with the anti-corruption campaign of the late 1970s, and benevolent paternalism with the development of a welfare system. But it did so without democratic institutions, instead giving people a say in government through local bodies or other avenues. The presence of China forced the government to be responsive to the people, lest unrest fuel irredentist sentiments, but at the same time inhibited it from doing so through democratisation, seen as a prelude to independence which China would not allow.

The negotiations of 1982-1984 led to a Joint Declaration, which provided the framework for the years leading up to 1997. The biggest disputes were over the notion of "convergence" and the formulation of the Basic Law, but the Chinese were prepared to be flexible to ensure a successful takeover. "By and large, the PRC has committed itself in the Basic Law to recreate in the SAR a Chinese version of the British Crown Colony system of government."

Many Hong Kongers sympathised strongly with the 1989 student protest movement, and its repression and the Tiananmen Incident "both brought [their] identity problem to a head and destroyed their confidence in the future". The British government gave UK citizenship to 50,000 key people, accelerated democratisation, and tried to get "the best deal possible within the framework of convergence". The 1992 appointment of Christopher Patten as governor, and the election in 1995 of a Legislative Council, brought increasing conflict with the Chinese, who opted to "build a new kitchen", constructing their own institutions in parallel.

A final chapter describes the 1997 handover and looks back at the British legacy. Despite publication in 2004 and the "modern" in the title, there's no coverage of the post-1997 period, of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China. But that perhaps demands a book of its own.

June 2006

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%T A Modern History of Hong Kong
%A Tsang, Steve
%I I.B. Tauris
%D 2004
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 1860641849
%P 340pp