Around a year ago, mass protests broke out in my hometown Hong Kong, shocking the world, shattering the global image of this East Asian metropolis long known for its safety and stability. Many of my non-Hongkong friends have asked me about what has been going on in Hong Kong, and while I tried to explain as much as I can, there’s simply no short answer to the question.
Mass protests broke out on Sep 28, 2014, when protesters started occupying a main road on Hong Kong Island.
The Hong Kong that we see now is a society torn apart by internal conflicts deeply entrenched in its very structure. In the following blogs, I will seek to shed light on these recent turmoils that has engulfed Hong Kong, beginning with the city’s history, for these structural conflicts can only be understood within the context of its unique history, intricately embedded within major events of the history of China.
1. Hong Kong under Imperial China (214BC-1750AD)
Little was known about Hong Kong before the 1840s, since for the majority of history, it had seen little development.
In 221BC, King Zheng of the Qin state (from which comes the Arabic name “sin”, Latin “sino”, Spanish and English “china”) conquered all surrounding feudal states, proclaiming himself to be the First Emperor. Soon afterwards, in 214BC, the newly proclaimed empire defeated the “Southern barbarians” (南蠻), ie. the Yue people (粤/越) who were native to present day southern China and northern Vietnam (“Yue” and “Viet” are different accents/pronunciations of the same word that referred to same tribes).
Present day Hong Kong, then a small fishing village, was put under the jurisdiction of the County of Panyu. Little was known about Hong Kong during imperial China, with a few exceptions:
- A grand tomb from the Han dynasty (206BC – 9AD) was excavated in 1955.
- The first emperor of the Tang dynasty established a barrack in 736AD in the present day district of Tuen Mun (屯門, literally “garrison gate”).
- The last emperor of the Song dynasty (960-1279AD), Emperor Bing (宋帝昺), was pursued by the invading Mongolians, and upon realizing all had been lost, he committed suicide by jumping into the sea near present day Hong Kong.
Song Wong Toi (宋王台）, the boulder commemorating the place where the last emperor of the Song dynasty jumped into the sea.
For the majority of the past two millennia, Hong Kong was a small fishing village. Its rise to international attention was, unfortunately, tied to another important event in Chinese history: the infamous Opium War.
2. International Trade in Pre-Modern China (1750-1840)
European merchants traded with China, importing tea and exporting opium.
With the Industrial Revolution staring in the 1750s in Europe, beginning with Britain, the European powers had produced so many goods that they need to sell. Thus, they tried exploring new markets so that the demands would catch up with production. Equipped with the navigation technologies refined throughout the Age of Discovery (1492-1750), trade over sea routes gradually replaced trade over land routes (ie the Silk Road, which since the ancient times connected Rome to Luoyang through the central Asian states).
With an increase of Western traders in China, the emperor of the Qing dynasty, considering China to be a self-sufficient economy, was determined to limit foreign influence. He decided to restrict foreign trade with China to one city: Guangzhou aka Canton, a major port along the Pearl River. In the early years of Canton trade, there was a net inflow of silver into China, as Western merchants bought tea, a highly profitable product, back to Europe (The English word “tea”, Spanish “te”, Arabic “shay”, Hindi “chai”, all come from the Chinese word 茶, pronounced “cha” in Cantonese Chinese and “te” in Teochew Chinese, which refers to the tea plant native to southwestern China), while the Chinese had no interest in the new goods produced industrially by the West.
The Canton Harbor and the warehouses of different European countries, c. 1785
Very soon, these European merchants were finding it harder and harder to obtain enough silver to trade with the Chinese, given that silver was the only legal tender in imperial China. Not being able to sell most of their products and not being able to get enough silver, British merchants began selling opium (鴉片) to China to balance the trade, since the poppy plant is native to its newly acquired colony, India. (Opium is an addictive smokable drug made from the poppy plant, from which heroin is also made.)
Initially, the local Chinese officials tolerated the trade, given that they benefited from the tariffs. Soon, however, the imperial court (ie. the central government) began to realize the social and economic impact of opium: people were spending their entire fortunes on opium, to which they were addicted, and having no money to buy more opium, many resorted to robbery. Opium soon became the cause of social and economic instability. In addition, the silver flow was reversed because of opium trade: the increasing net outflow of silver caused serious inflation within China, further intensifying the socio-economic issues. By 1838, the British East India Company was selling 1400 tons of opium into China per year for 30 million taels of silver in return.
Opium addicts in China
The issue split the government officials into two camps: pro-regulation and pro-ban. The pro-regulation camp stated to the emperor that to solve the problem of net silver outflow, the government should plant and sell opium itself, in additional to heavily taxing opium imports. The pro-ban officials stated that opium was an inherent destabilizer of society and was an evil that needed to be uprooted from China. (This is not unlike the recent recreational drug debate in modern day US.)
The problem was so widespread that from commoners to the emperor himself, many were addicted to opium. Realizing that many soldiers were also addicted, the most prominent pro-ban official, Lin Zexu (林則徐), declared to Emperor Daoguang (道光), “if we don’t uproot this evil, within ten years, we will have no money to pay our soldiers, nor will any soldiers have any ability to fight” (此禍不除，十年之後，不惟無可籌之餉，且無可用之兵). This ultimately convinced Emperor Daoguang to proclaim an imperial decree to ban opium in all of China.
3. Opium War: the first war on drugs (1840-1842)
The last time that a government declared a war on drugs, the drug traffickers responded with blood and steel, invading and colonizing the land, in the name of facilitating trade.
After getting the approval from the emperor, Lin wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of Britain, asking her how she, knowing that opium was harmful and having herself banned opium in Britain, could morally justify engaging in opium trade in China, at the same time notifying her of the new law that opium was banned in China.
The Emperor then sent Lin to Canton to confiscate any opium found and expel any foreign merchants breaking the law (ie. drug traffickers). In 1839, Lin demanded all European merchants hand over all their opium. Not taking this seriously, the merchants handed over only a couple chests of opium while continuing their business. Lin then blockaded all European warehouses, until the European merchants handed over their opium.
Most European merchants complied with the law, with the exception of the British, whose benefit in opium trade was the greatest amongst the European powers. 18 days later, Charles Elliot, the British head of commerce in China, lacking food and water, finally gave in, handing over 3 million pounds of opium, which Lin destroyed by boiling it with quicklime. Elliot, however, continued ignoring the law of the land and continued secretly selling opium.
Destruction of 3 million pounds of opium at Humen (虎門) by Lin Zexu
The immediate cause of the war was the murder of Lin Weixi, a native of the village of Kowloon, by British sailors under Elliot’s command. When Lin Zexu demanded the sailor be arrested and tried, Elliot claimed that the British sailor should be tried by British laws instead. Elliot’s “court” found the sailor guilty, but soon released him without any punishment. Infuriated by Elliot’s blatant insult of Chinese sovereignty, Lin Zexu blockaded the port of Canton, together with all British ships. The Daoguang Emperor also issued a decree to cut all trades with Britain.
Soon, the British parliament, together with Queen Victoria, decided to invade China to “uphold its national interests in China” . In June 1840, the British mobilized the Indian fleet, under the command of George Elliot (Charles Elliot’s cousin) and later Henry Pottinger, to attack various cities along the coast.
By the 1840s, the end of Industrial Revolution, Britain had mastered the techniques of producing high quality steel. This enabled the British to build up a powerful navy of steel ships with steam engines, ships that could move without sails. This ability to maneuver independent of weather gave great advantage to the British fleet, making it the most powerful navy of the world back then. In addition, the revolution in the production of metals also brought forth guns, which proved to be very powerful in land battles and short-distance contact battles.
The Qing dynasty’s fleet, made of wood, was no comparison to the steel fleet of Britain, despite the fortified cannons along the shore were able to sink some British ships. The British easily overtook Guangzhou (Canton), Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo (Ningpo), and Shanghai, coveting, burning, killing, raping, destroying everything they could find along the way. In addition to controlling the coast and the Yangtze River Delta, the British also seized the Great Canal (京杭大运河) that connected the Yangtze River with Beijing (Peking), severing this main trade artery within China. Next, the British fleet and land troops continued heading up the Yangtze River, surrounding the city of Nanjing (Nanking).
The First Opium War, 1840-1842
The Daoguang Emperor was willing to do anything to have the British withdraw their troops. Thus the first “unequal treaty”, the Treaty of Nanking (南京條約), was signed in 1842, marking the beginning of China’s Century of Humiliation (1842-1945). The terms of the Treaty of Nanking (with the subsequent supplement Treaty of the Bogue 虎門條約) included:
- Reparation: 21 million silver dollars.
- Opening ports for British trade: Guangzhou (Canton), Fuzhou (Foochow), Xiamen (Amoy), Ningbo (Ningpo), and Shanghai. British warships can anchor at any designated ports of trade.
- Consular Jurisdiction: all Brits are not subject to Chinese law, and all suspected crimes committed by Brits are to be investigated by the British consulate, not Chinese officials.
- Most Favored Nation treatment: all rights subsequently given up by the Qing dynasty to any other countries will automatically apply to Britain as well.
- Cession: The island of Hong Kong is to be ceded to Britain in perpetuity.
Signing of the Treaty of Nanking, 1842
4. Why Hong Kong? Geopolitics
Hong Kong (a butchered transliteration of 香港 [“heung gong” in Cantonese Chinese], literally meaning “port of fragrance” or “port of incense”) is located at the mouth of the Pearl River, the third largest river in China (after the Yangtze and the Yellow River).
The island of Hong Kong is a very small and hilly island with barely any flat land suitable for agriculture or any large constructions. Of the terms above, the one concerning Hong Kong seems to be the least useful to the British. One may wonder why the British would be interested in such an undeveloped (and undevelopable) island with essentially no resources. To understand the strategic importance of Hong Kong, we must first know of its geography.
- Strategic location: The island of Hong Kong is at the mouth of the Pearl River, where it enters South China Sea. The port of Guangzhou (Canton) is about 120km (70 miles) up from the mouth of the Pearl River. Stationing troops in Hong Kong will thus give Britain control over trade to Guangzhou, a major city and port in the south, thereby the ability to extend its sphere of influence over huge areas in southern China.
Location of Hong Kong in relation to Guangzhou (Canton) and the rest of modern China.
- An excellent harbor: The channel between Hong Kong Island and the main land is an excellent natural harbor (named Victoria Harbour after the invading British monarch). It is very deep and can allow warships and trade ships to enter without the need of intermediary ships to transport goods ashore (To this day, gigantic ocean liners and cruises can simply enter the harbor. Most other ports in the world can’t). In addition, it is a perfect haven for ships during typhoons (ie hurricanes), common in the South China Sea during the summer.
- A stepping stone for future invasions: Hong Kong, in addition to serving as the main port of opium trade after the war, would also serve as a port of supply for British fleets in the Far East, without which the nearest would be India. Establishing an outpost in Hong Kong thus set the stage for further British invasions of China, as we shall see shortly. It is no coincidence that the commander of the British fleet that defeated China in the Opium War, Henry Pottinger, became the first governor of the colony of Hong Kong.
5. The Second Opium War and the Treaty of Peking (1856-1860)
Not really about opium any more, but a war to expand Western privileges and exploitation in China.
After the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the Western powers realized the weakness of the Qing dynasty, and with the threat of war, each negotiated its own treaty with China, each granting similar trading privileges. These include:
- Treaty of Wanghia (望廈條約), 1844, with the United States:
- Granting similar rights as the Treaty of Nanking (5 ports of trade, Consular jurisdiction, Most favored nation).
- Treaty of Whampoa (黃埔條約), 1844, with France:
- Granting similar rights as the Treaty of Nanking,
- All future changes to tariffs between China and any countries needed to be first approved by France.
In 1856, Britain and France, desiring to expand their gains in China, attempted to “re-negotiate” their treaties with the Qing dynasty, but were refused. Using a minor incident on a Chinese trade ship as an excuse, Britain and France first invaded Guangzhou (Canton), then Tianjin, and finally capturing Beijing (Pekin), the capital of the Qing dynasty. The Emperor and the royal family fled inland when the Anglo-French troops approached Beijing.
After capturing Beijing, the French troops looted and burnt down the Yuanming Gardens (圓明園), the summer garden of the Qing dynasty. The Yuanming Gardens were perhaps most well known for the water clock fountain, with the statues of the 12 zodiacs telling the time of the day. Some of these statues were recently being auctioned, with various Chinese businessmen “re-purchasing” these stolen treasures from foreign “collectors” for more than US$150 million. (Let this sink in).
Ruins of the zodiac water clock fountain Yuanming Gardens
With this defeat, the Qing dynasty signed the Treaties of Tientsin and Peking (天津條約，北京條約) with Britain and France (and Russia, who forcibly included itself in the treaty with the threat of war). The terms of the treaties included:
- Reparations: 8 million taels of silver to each of France and Britain.
- All Christians (including converted Chinese Christians) are not subject to Chinese law.
- Cession to Russia: 1.5 million square kilometers of land (in present day Kazakhstan and Russian Far East), including Haishenwei (海參威, ie Vladivostok, which became the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway) is to be ceded to Russia.
- Cession to Britain: The Kowloon Peninsula (九龍半島) is to be ceded to Britain in perpetuity.
Kowloon is the peninsula across the Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island. To this day, there is a street in the peninsular called Boundary Street (界限街) in Kowloon, which marked the boundary separating the British crown colony of Hong Kong and Kowloon with the rest of China.
(This piece of history is the reason that Chinese people nowadays generally refuse to use the British-imposed butchered transliterations of Peking, Nanking, Tientsin, and Canton, and instead prefer the more accurate transliterations of Beijing, Nanjing, Tianjin, and Guangzhou. It is considered offensive and you will be seen as a pro-colonialism Euro-centric supremacist if you insist on using these derogatory “British names” onto Chinese cities.)
Later, in 1898, the Qing government signed yet another treaty with the British, in which Britain would “lease” the lands north of Boundary Street and south of the “Sham Chun River” (ie Shenzhen River 深圳河) (the newly incorporated lands were appropriately called “New Territories”) for 99 years. (1898 + 99 = 1997, the year in which Britain handed back to China the crown colony of Hong Kong, which actually consisted of Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsular, and the New Territories. More on the reunification later.)
Hong Kong Island (1842 Treaty of Nanking),
Kowloon Peninsular (1860 Treaty of Peking), and
the New Territories (1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory).
6. Hong Kong, a city borne out of globalization and war
Thus, in the name of trade, the British, together with the rest of the Western powers, forcibly opened the door to China with blood and steel. Hong Kong, once a quiet fishing village, became the witness to, or more appropriately, the child of the modern concept of globalization. The establishment of Hong Kong is inextricably bound to trade, but its story with globalization doesn’t end here. In the next blog, we shall see the rise of Hong Kong as an global city in the 20th century under British rule, 1842-1997.