The Swaying Bauhinia

Hong Kong is the archetype of a global city. The city commands immense geopolitical power, and it remains one of the most internationally connected cities in Asia. Its very name is synonymous with international business and global trade. Long before cities like Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, Taipei, or even Seoul, Hong Kong was the mega city in East Asia. But this week, that position may have started to take a dramatic shift. China’s president, Xi Jinping, visited the semi-autonomous region, marking the 20-year anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty to mainland China. Many of the people living in the city are wary about their future, after enjoying democratic values under British rule for over 140 years. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s take a historical look at how Hong Kong came to be this powerful city and consider what that means for a city (now territory) charting a new future under China.

The history of Hong Kong is hard to digest. It reeks of muscular imperialism and Western overreach, and that’s saying something. I usually celebrate Western values, but imperialism is something that disturbs me. Any time a nation or culture believes their values are infinitely superior to others, tragedy strikes. Aside from that upfront disclosure, let’s get down to some history. Imagine life in early Victorian era. This was the time right around the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign. China was still an empire in dire straits during the Qing dynasty under the Daoguang Emperor. China has had a long, consistent imperial and civilizational history even at this time in the past. The Chinese invented paper, fireworks, silk, tea, porcelain, banknotes, and printing, among other things. They were the largest civilization in the world at this time, with almost 400 million people.1 Yes. They had almost half a billion people before the 1850s. That’s insane. Given that they had such amazing achievements with such large populations, you can understand why they did not exactly want to integrate into the greater world system. The Industrial Revolution had already started, but the Chinese still conducted life in a manner far behind the times. Yet the sticking point with the Western powers, when it came to China, was trade.

Early Hong Kong

With the Industrial Revolution, trade and commerce were essential. Countries saw a benefit in establishing trade relations to help augment their geopolitical influence and stabilize their economies. Job creation became a boon, especially with the start of developing a rail network across nations to transport raw materials. The Chinese instituted a trade system called the Canton System: “Into this system the English East India Company fitted itself at the beginning of the eighteenth century, although by the end of that period Canton was becoming the real center of foreign activity. Until the third decade of the nineteenth century the effort at quarantine continued. Foreigners were restricted to the Canton factories, outside the city walls, until 1858; even the first treaties after 1842 had restricted them to the five treaty ports or a day’s journey therefrom. This bare recital should suggest that the Ch’ing [or Qing] administration was by no means incapable of adaptation in the face of danger.”2 Accordingly, this system, according to Fairbanks and Têng, “had been directly inherited from the Ming dynasty,” and the “system was a natural outgrowth of the cultural pre-eminence of the early Chinese…[used for] political ends of self-defense…[with a] fundamental and important commercial basis… [and] served as the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy.”3 The Chinese kept outsiders at arms length, preventing many Western nations from conducting direct trade with mainland. So, in order to conduct trade they could only do so through Canton, now Guangzhou.

This Chinese trade strategy sparked trade complications, as European states had a high demand for Chinese commodities such as silk, porcelain, and tea, but the Chinese were not interested in importing Western products. These actions created a trade imbalance, as only items Europeans were able to trade tended to be silver but over time the supplies winnowed and prices fluctuated, leading to trouble with demand. The Chinese were able to obtain other sources of silver from Japan, and, again, they were able to maintain their self-sufficient posture. The British were able to trade Indian-grown opium through the British East India Company, but they had to force it. Long ago, David Wells basically came to the same conclusion many decades after the trade war, where “[UK] instituted a war ‘in order to force poor China to take the opium that England was trying to compel her to import, no matter what the great evils resulting’.”4 He suggested that in 1840, “Opium, the product of India, was imported into China by the East India Company under such circumstances, and without inhibition; but to an estimated extent of more than two per cent. of what would be necessary to meet the demand of the whole Chinese population.”5 Yet, the introduction of this commodity unsettled the Chinese population as addiction spread, leading the Chinese government to confiscate imported opium. This action led to a physical trade war. The war lasted almost three and half years with the lion share of casualties coming from the Chinese column. The Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842, one of the first of many the Chinese saw as the unequal treaties, forced China to pay indemnities and lost territory. But this did not end any hostilities, as they had a 2nd war just twelve years later.

Treaty of Nanking

For the Chinese, they thrived under a very rigid Confucian cultural and political system. Westerns came in and disrupted this way of life, and, unlike the Chinese being the recipients of tribute, they had to pay tribute to the British. In this corner of history, irony dangled on a string. Fairbanks in a detailed analysis of the Chinese negotiation posture shows the Chinese lacked a diplomatic strategy and experience in securing favorable negotiating terms, especially considering this dispute started over seizing imported opium shipments through Canton: “The fact was that the diplomats representing China at Nanking were in no position to bargain. Their chief object was to get peace as soon as possible and to discuss the terms later.”6 Keep in mind the Chinese wanted this conflict to end. Yet according to Overholt in his research on Hong Kong’s sovereign explained that both treaties (1842 and 1860 respectively) put the Chinese in a position where they “ceded the territory in perpetuity [with the British forcing] China to sign a 99-year lease on much larger ‘New Territories’… to balance concessions China had made to France.”7 Overholt even clarified the, “Chinese attitude toward all three treaties is roughly what the US attitude would be to a treaty that ceded Russia sovereignty over New York as punishment for US laws banning importation of massive amounts of heroin.”8 This is where the phrase unequal treaties comes to Chinese vernacular, and this action, among others, is where deep-seated distrust over Western powers remains a common understanding even in a modern Chinese public.

Over the next 156 years, Hong Kong became the single most important British territory. International trade and business flowed through this jewel of the East. Hong Kong in mid-20th century saw unmatchable growth. Hong Kong became synonymous with global trade and global economics. According to Tsim in China-Hong Kong Relations, “[A]fter some 143 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong which had no more than a few thousand Chinese fishermen and farmers in 1841 had developed into a major financial centre, the business hub of East and Southeast Asia, and the world’s number fifteen exporting territory… [with] a per capita GDP of… close to $6,000 and enjoyed the second highest standard of living in the whole of Asia.”9 The territory evolved amidst the same set of islands, only expanding in economic power. By the 1990s, Hong Kong, along with Tokyo, became the mega cities of Asia. However, to present day, the British finally relinquished sovereignty of Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic of China. Part of it involved the delicate politics of China taking up the permanent seat vacated by the Taiwanese (or Republic of China) on the UN Security Council in 1971. It took roughly 25 years to happen, but China finally swallowed Hong Kong back into the fold with mainland China, as a semi-autonomous region. The problem with this arrangement stemmed from the liberal democratic cultural values Hongkongers grew to accept and benefit. With a communist China, what would that mean for their democratic experiment? Will they be allowed to live the way they have for all this time? A recent spat of protests and visit from the Chinese president suggests that Hong Kong’s former identity is rapidly shedding its Western veneer.

Modern-Day Hong Kong

The Chinese, surprisingly, have taken to handling Hong Kong with much care. Historically, China has garnered much value by having Hong Kong as a buffer between the Western nations: “For the Qing dynasty, the early Republican government, the warlords, the Kuomintang, and the Communists alike, Hong Kong has been a crucial source of foreign exchange and a place where one could do needed business with the foreign devil capitalists while isolating most of China from dangerous contact with Western society.”10 Even communist China articulated in 1979 to former Hong Kong governor, Deng Xiaoping, “Your investors should put their hearts at ease.”11 China kept a timid approach as they, along with the British, came to terms on the eventual transfer of Hong Kong sovereignty. Yet that early strategy and slow progression has worn away. With the resurgence of China’s dominion in Asia over the last decade, Hongkongers have lodged their displeasure and antipathy toward the Chinese government in unprecedented protests, as reported by the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.

With the Chinese president’s visit, China’s long-term goals are not clear. This is causing unease in Hong Kong. For a society that has become accustomed to liberal economic and political sovereignty for five generations, this shift in thinking and cultural values prove messy. Tsim reminds readers that the one country, two systems concept has been interpreted differently since it was first put in place. The one country, two systems is a constitutional arrangement where Hong Kong (as well as Macau) and mainland China have two different economic and political systems. Hong Kong and Macau can maintain their capitalist systems while China employs socialism in the mainland.12 Deng Xiaoping articulated this concept years ago when China started pushing for a one China policy. Critics have suggested this arrangement will not work. The response to the Tiananmen incident suggests Chinese still sees such systems within its sphere to be an existential threat, which for me, I can understand their misgivings. On paper, the British are supposed to ensure “‘a high degree of autonomy’” for special administrative regions like Hong Kong.13 Yet, with Brexit and potential from both Northern Ireland and Scotland having delusions for leaving the United Kingdom, it appears the UK is in no position to counter or check the Chinese if they want to exert more power in Hong Kong’s affairs.

President Xi visits Hong Kong

During President Xi’s visit, he gave a speech in which he declared, “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government…or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible.”14 Based on this language, and given the protests and recent reports that “[a] group of Hong Kong activists pleaded guilty…to charges related to the city’s large-scale pro-democracy protests in 2014,” his speech suggests his government has little interest in maintaining the arrangement much in the way Deng advertised over 30 years ago.15 The red line appears to stake the limit the Chinese government is willing to tolerate questions against their authority. According to another piece in WSJ, “‘The significance of the visit is to further show who is boss, show who is in control’.”16 The recent protests have rattled senior Chinese leadership, and Xi’s visit was a reminder to the public in Hong Kong about what is still to come—possibly?

Adding to this complicated political dilemma is Hong Kong’s current economic fortunes. The former British territory enjoyed impressive economic activity until mainland China’s fortunes expanded: “Hong Kong’s GDP has shriveled from the equivalent of 18% of China’s in 1997 to just 3% today. Hong Kong’s port, once the world’s busiest, has slipped to fifth position, behind both Shenzhen and Shanghai,” suggesting Hong Kong’s influence waning and spelling more trouble as China decides to exert its political muscle.17 But as Andrew Browne states, “Don’t write off Hong Kong’s prospects yet…[as they have grown] faster than almost any other comparable international economy, powered by Chinese tourist dollars and real-estate investment.” 18 Given this somewhat upbeat prognosis, he warned that “Hong Kong’s position as a glittering financial center is safe, so long as rule of law survives. That British legacy may ultimately hinge on Beijing’s interpretation of the concept… [even though] the Chinese Supreme People’s Court a few months ago condemned ‘erroneous’ Western ideas of judicial independence.” 19

Hong Kong Umbrella Protests

Will the protests continue? Is this the beginning of democratic activity diminishing in Hong Kong? It’s too early to tell, but any casual observer of this shared past can see and understand Hong Kong has a history of survival. They know how to make the most and thrive under difficult circumstances, but it’s a matter of whether their political and cultural soul will survive the complicated storm of transition (or adjustment). As unsettling as the prospect is for those under a Western sphere of influence, Hong Kong will always, like the swaying bauhinia that dots its landscape, grow and establish vibrant roots. We will just have to see if British influence all those decades will remain a driver in its common discourse for generations to come.