A Summer of Anniversaries

way back when

In the heady early months of the Opium War (1840-1842), British Admiral George Elliot had captured the Qing forts at Humen. Later, on January 15, 1841, George’s cousin, Charles, who had been serving as Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China and who, more than anyone on the British side, had helped to orchestrate the two sides into the war, offered peace concessions to the Qing governor-general at Guangzhou, the Manchu official Kišan.

Both Elliots were under pressure from London to secure an island, preferably one near the tea growing regions of the Yangtze River Valley. As it happened, British forces had the previous summer captured two candidate islands. One was the lovely and large Zhoushan Island, just off the coast of Ningbo and the lush tea plantations of Zhejiang Province. The other was Hong Kong, a rocky fishing outpost nowhere near tea plantations.

In the ensuing negotiations, Charles Elliot offered peace in exchange for Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the release of some British sailors who had wrecked on Zhoushan Island. Kišan told Elliott he could have Hong Kong or Kowloon, but not both. Elliott chose Hong Kong and the Convention of Chuenpi was signed in January 1841.

Palmerston famously dismissed Hong Kong as “a barren island with hardly a house upon it,” an assessment that would seem to confirm the great statesman’s calling was indeed politics and not real estate prognostication.

Almost immediately, Elliot and Kišan found themselves in trouble with their respective bosses. Kišan was cashiered and hauled off to the Board of Punishments in Beijing where he was given a (suspended) death sentence for providing the foreign menace with foothold in the empire—even one as tenuous as Hong Kong island.
Later that same spring, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston sacked Charles Elliott for having insufficiently pressed his Manchu counterpart for greater concessions given the lopsided nature of the military contest to that point. Palmerston famously dismissed Hong Kong as “a barren island with hardly a house upon it,” an assessment that would seem to confirm the great statesman’s calling was indeed politics and not real estate prognostication. The Convention of Chuenpi was never ratified, but the Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, confirmed the cession of Hong Kong island to the British in perpetuity.

While Charles Elliot had to choose between Hong Kong or Kowloon, the latter joined the ranks of British colonial territory in 1860 following the Second Opium War, the torching of the emperor’s imperial parks and gardens outside of Beijing and the Convention of Beijing. The area to the north of Boundary Street, the “New Territories” were formally added—under terms of a 99-year lease—with Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory signed in 1898 at a time when the Qing Empire was helpless before an onslaught of aggressive foreign interests, including rising powers Germany, Japan, and Russia. This lease was due to expire on June 30, 1997.

As time started to run out on the agreement, Britain and China negotiated over a settlement of the Hong Kong question. China maintained that not only did it expect to re-take control over the New Territories come 1997, but that the Chinese government refused to recognize the validity of either the Treaty of Nanjing or the Beijing Convention, citing both as unequal treaties.

Ultimately, an agreement was reached to hand over Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories to China effective June 30, 1997 under the pretense of “One Country, Two Systems.” History may have to be the judge of how that worked out for the people of Hong Kong.

But the handover was not only about the end of the New Territories lease. Two other anniversaries this summer also played a role in the decision to allow China to take control of Hong Kong. 50 years ago this spring, a series of riots rocked Hong Kong.

What began as a labor dispute escalated into several weeks of organized demonstrations, riots, and violent clashes between Leftist and Pro-Communist demonstrators and the Hong Kong government. The riots were a poignant reminder at the time of the reach of China and the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP was actively supporting the demonstrations and there is some evidence that members of the PLA had plans to use the riots as a pretext for military intervention into Hong Kong.

Finally, this summer is also the 25th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s famous “Southern Tour.” Deng was the driving force behind the reclamation of Hong Kong, although he passed away shortly before the official handover.

Nevertheless, his visit to Shenzhen at a time when the government was struggling with its image both inside and outside the country signaled not only Deng’s personal commitment to continue and deepen economic reforms, but also marked the beginning of the “To get rich is glorious” era. The boom began with Deng’s visit, along with the reconnection—albeit under two systems—of Hong Kong with its Pearl River Delta hinterland that gave rise to the PRD as we know it today.