The future of Hong Kong: not what it used to be.

Author:Wesley-Smith, Peter
Position:Hong Kong's Reintegration into the People's Republic of China: Constitutional Issues, Policy Approaches & Human Rights Concerns, and Economic & Legal Implications

I know that the Chinese people are willing to go to war

with England over Hong Kong, even if the Chinese

Government is not.

--Lin Yu-tang(1)


    Wrested by force or threat through "unequal treaties" and at the cost of the enduring hostility of the Chinese nation, Hong Kong as a British colony often seemed fragile and uncertain. Much of it was secured by a lease which would expire in 1997. Considerable efforts were therefore made at various times in Hong Kong and the Colonial Office to place the territory on a firmer footing, but from 1943 it seemed unlikely that even the status quo could long be defended in the post-war world. After 1949, the central issue was whether Hong Kong could survive at all as a British dependency on the periphery of Communist China. This Article, based on documents available up to the end of 1996 in the Public Record Office in London.(2) seeks to present British attitudes towards retention of its Far Eastern colony.


    1. British Acquisition of Hong Kong

      The island of Hong Kong, following the Opium War, was ceded to the British Crown by the Treaty of Nanjing 1842. A small strip of territory on the opposite mainland, known as Kowloon, and Stonecutters Island were ceded in 1860. Cession was then understood in international law to mean an absolute transfer of sovereignty over the territory in perpetuity. Legal title was therefore safe, at least until China was strong enough to demand retrocession. The last acquisition, however, of the New Territories, comprising rural hinterland and sea boundaries enclosing the ceded portions, was achieved through a ninety-nine year lease in 1898. Britain asserted sovereignty over the leasehold, though recognizing the obligation to restore it to China in 1997. In due course, it became clear that the ceded colony could not exist as a functioning territorial unit without the leased addition, and the primary objective in the first part of this century was to convert the lease into a formal cession.

    2. Proposals to Cede the New Territories

      Governors of Hong Kong were the principal movers in advancing the cause of cession, and no opportunity which might arise in Sino-British relations was lost. As early as 1909, Sir Frederick Lugard suggested cession as a condition for the return of Weihaiwei, a Chinese territory also leased in 1898 but for an uncertain term. The Colonial Office promised to give careful consideration to the proposal when the time came.(3) Weihaiwei was not restored until 1930, and in the meantime Sir Cecil Clementi revived Lugard's proposal. A Colonial Office clerk minuted, "The outlook is an anxious one for Hong Kong but our best chance of saving the New Territories is to lie doggo and assume that the lease will run its normal course (another 70 years)."(4) In 1929, the Foreign Office sought the views of Sir Miles Lampson, British Minister in Beijing, on whether the Chinese government would accept a package of Weihaiwei, money, and certain disputed tracts of land on the Burmese border in return for cession of the New Territories. Lampson scorned the idea. "For us to seek now to perpetuate or extend any existing alienation would be not only to invite a rebellion but to concentrate active attention on issues far better left dormant."(5) The Colonial Office nevertheless wanted the question constantly in mind in case a "less unfavourable" opportunity should occur in the future.(6) It was pressed again in 1930 in relation to what appeared to be agreement on customs, but Lampson remained firmly opposed. It was raised again a year later with equal lack of favour, by Sir William Peel and by Sir Geoffry Northcote in 1938, this time in return for a substantial loan to China.(7) The time, however, was never ripe, and no approach to the Chinese government was ever made.

      Opinion in the Foreign Office had in any event turned against such schemes, and once Britain was embroiled in World War II the issue was not cession of the New Territories but whether the entire colony should and could be preserved.

    3. Retention of Hong Kong

      The China specialists in the British diplomatic corps had long had doubts about maintaining the unequal treaties, including those by which Britain had acquired Hong Kong. In 1919, for example. Sir John Jordan, British Minister to China, favored the "neutralization or internationalization of all leased territories under conditions which will secure immunity from attack and render such terms as `open door' and `China's integrity' realities and not the meaningless expressions they too often are at present."(8) One of his successors. Sir H. Seymour, in 1942 urged that Hong Kong be given up along with extraterritorial rights in China.(9) The officials of the Foreign Office tended to waver, sometimes supporting outright retention, sometimes seeking to protect Hong Kong but restoring Chinese sovereignty. Sir John Pratt, previously from the consular service in China, argued in 1931 against annexation of the New Territories in favor of merely preserving the water supply and strengthening the case for preservation of the ceded colony alone.(10) Ten years later he was prepared to abandon the entire territory.

      After Japan's occupation of Hong Kong in 1941, the issue for the British was how to formulate a post-war policy for Hong Kong, given that the Americans under Roosevelt were hostile to British imperialism in the Pacific and that China was likely to demand rendition of Hong Kong as a consequence of the war. From 1941 to 1943, the trend of official opinion was in favor of accommodating China's wishes by some compromise arrangement, such as a joint mandatory system with the United States.(11) In 1942, the Colonial Office, traditionally a strong proponent of Hong Kong's retention, suggested that after victory in the war, and assuming satisfactory international co-operation. His Majesty's Government would be "ready to consider with the Government of China the future position in Hong Kong and will not for their part regard the maintenance of British sovereignty of the Colony as a matter beyond the scope of such discussions. They recognize that Hong Kong is geographically an integral part of China and that the services which the port and mart of Hong Kong can render to their ally China and to the development of good relations between China and all the United Nations should be the predominant factor in any reconstruction plans."(12) That is, Hong Kong should be returned "on terms."

      There was much support for this notion, though strong dissents were registered, and it was in general agreed that readiness to re-cede Hong Kong would dissipate if conditions in China were not at the time propitious. The first major test of this tentative policy came with the Chinese counter-draft to Britain's draft treaty for the renunciation of British extraterritorial rights in China. Included was a demand that the New Territories convention be terminated. Britain was not prepared to concede, even at the cost of sacrificing the extraterritoriality treaty, but China unexpectedly relented, being content instead with a promise that the New Territories lease could be discussed after the war. At a conference on Pacific relations later in 1942, Sir John Pratt, to the displeasure of the Foreign Office, stated that he felt "confident that when the time came to deal with Hong Kong, the Chinese would be completely satisfied."(13)

      Thereafter, during the war, the Hong Kong question subsided. China apparently believed that the deal was done, barring the paperwork, and tilt the whole colony would be returned to Chinese sovereignty once victory was won. British attitudes, however, gradually moved towards retention. American opinion continued to favor the Chinese side, but its articulation was uncoordinated, and Winston Churchill expressed adamant opposition to rendition (he was not, he said. His Majesty's Prime Minister "to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire").(14) Roosevelt offered Chiang Kaishek support for the recovery of Hong Kong in return for a representative government in China and co-operation with the communists in the fight against Japan, hoping Chiang would make Hong Kong an international free port. Churchill was neither consulted nor amused, and refused to discuss the matter with Roosevelt when it was informally raised in November 1943. At Yalta in 1945, Roosevelt secretly mentioned to Stalin his ideas for the future of Hong Kong, as "he hoped that the British would give back the sovereignty of Hong Kong to China and that it would then become an internationalised free port."(15) He sent General Patrick Hurley to London to discuss the issue. "[O]ver my dead body" was Churchill's response.(16)

      By 1945, Britain was assuming that the status quo ante bellum would be restored in Hong Kong. A naval force under Rear-Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt arrived in the colony on August 30 to assist in administration after Japan's collapse on the 14th. The urgent issue then became the formal acceptance of the Japanese surrender. Britain initially insisted that her sovereignty over Hong Kong was the crucial factor, whereas Chiang Kai-shek argued pre-eminence as commander-in-chief of the China theatre. With Truman and MacArthur's support, however. Britain offered acceptance of the surrender by Harcourt on behalf of both Britain and Chiang, and Chiang agreed.(17) With the British flag once more ascendant, China's ambition to recover Hong Kong had to rely on post-war diplomacy.(18)


    The Colonial Office had nevertheless remained flexible on the future of Hong Kong, at least in regard to the New Territories. A note to the Far Eastern Economic Sub-committee of the War Cabinet in December, 1944 had stated the hope "that a favourable opportunity will be taken to secure at least a prolonged term arrangement with China which will assure the Colony of the...

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