From Opium to Oppression: A Short History of The Relationship between the UK and Hong Kong

Tomos Owen

Over the last few years the political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated markedly. Whilst Hong Kong had gotten used to a long period of democracy and autonomy from China, the last few years have been fraught with social tension, culminating with the introduction of a new National Security Law. Following the introduction of this law, the UK has taken the bold step of offering a route to citizenship to over three million residents of Hong Kong who are eligible for British Nationals (Overseas) status. At the same time, the government has been on an offensive to characterise the channel crossing of 2500 refugees since the beginning of 2020 as a ‘crisis’. I believe in offering Hong Kong residents with BNO status citizenship and opening safe routes so we can welcome refugees and remove the need for channel crossings, but what has led the government to only offer the former? This only becomes apparent when you look at the long and spotted relationship between Britain and Hong Kong. 

To fully understand this relationship you have to go back to the 17th century when Hong Kong was still administered by an area of inland China. Hong Kong at the time was relatively barren and for the most part relied upon the trade of pearls, salt and fish. Unbeknown to them, a trading relationship was also forming between Britain and China that would change the course of history in Hong Kong even to this day. At the dawn of this new found relationship, trade between Britain and China was informal and often sporadic. Britain had no official presence around China and trade for the most part was conducted through the British East India Company. However, in the centuries that followed, trade between Britain and China began to increase exponentially. The British were able to supply precious metals and in return, the Chinese were able to supply luxury goods in the form of tea, silk and porcelain. This relationship was initially lucrative for both the British and the Chinese, but a significant issue began to arise. Whilst British supplies of precious metals were initially supplemented through their colonial expansion, domestically there was also a growing demand and soon the British were in a significant trade deficit with China. This was, of course, unsustainable and with the British unlikely to find a new source of precious metals, they were forced to find another product which could balance their trade with China. 

To the detriment of the Chinese, the product that eventually balanced the trade deficit between Britain and China was opium. The British were said to have discovered this trade by 1773 and fast became the leading suppliers of opium to China. This was greatly assisted by the growth of the British East India Company and the monopolies they were able to secure on opium production in areas of India, which ensured there was always a continuous supply. As opium became more popular, Chinese society inevitably began to suffer from the effects of addiction. This is said to have infiltrated the breadth of the class-system and by 1780 the emperor of the Qing dynasty published an edict against the drug. When this ban was in place, the British East India Company licensed private traders to carry opium from India to China rather than carry it themselves. In turn, private traders would trade the opium with Chinese smugglers for precious metals which they would then return to the British East India Company. Despite the Qing dynasty’s clear ban on opium, they continued to profit from this trade for several years as precious metals received from the importation of opium would invariably be used to buy more goods from China. However, no amount of profit could make up for the social instability caused by opium addiction and in 1796 importation and cultivation of the drug was outlawed entirely. 

Unsurprisingly, the British traders were not deterred by the ban on the importation of opium and with this trade becoming even more lucrative, the amount of opium flowing into China continued to increase. This was facilitated greatly by corrupt officials who could profit from the widespread distribution networks within mainland China. The early 19th century was marked by rising tension between Britain and China, not least because of their contrasting outlooks on how trade should be conducted. Britain began favouring open market policies with limited trading barriers, whereas China favoured heavy government intervention where they saw fit and enforced substantial taxes on luxury goods. For the second time in the tumultuous relationship, Britain and China found themselves in a situation that was entirely unsustainable. This reached boiling point in 1838 when the Chinese emperor began sentencing drug traffickers to death and seizing stockpiles of opium. Initially, Charles Elliott, the British Superintendent of Trade in China, ordered that any British ships carrying opium should flee and prepare for war. Whilst Elliott did ultimately concede on this and a large amount of opium was handed to China, the relations between the two countries were damaged beyond repair. 

Instead of aiming to reconcile with the Chinese, the British contingency only furthered their problems. In 1839 when two British sailors beat a resident of Hong Kong to death, Elliott refused to hand the culprits over, favouring his own trial. This was the final straw for China and the emperor imposed a ban on the sale of food to the British and prevented their docking at Macau, a key landing point for their ships. With a number of British ships running out of provisions, the British sent Royal Navy ships to China in a response to the rising tensions. When the Chinese continued to refuse to trade food with the British, Elliott gave them the ultimatum that if they continued any longer, the British ships would fire on the Chinese. This failed to deter China’s chosen course of action and, true to their word, the British fired and the Chinese responded in turn. Eventually the British drove the Chinese away, but this was just the first action in what became known as the First Opium War. The next few years saw continued bombardment from the British military ships and in 1841 they caught several key forts on the Pearl River. This forced the Chinese Admiralty into negotiations with the British and by the end of January 1841, it was agreed that Hong Kong would be handed to Britain. However, this did not end the war and over the next year the British continued to fight for compensation and reparations for the cost of the war and the loss in trade. It actually took until August 1842 when the Treaty of Nanking was signed which provided the British with these concessions, opened up free trade and, importantly, officially ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

The British rule of Hong Kong saw them rapidly modernise the island. During the 1800s a number of Christian missionaries founded schools and colleges, the first gas and electric companies were introduced and, in a sign of what the island would become, the first large scale bank was opened. Nevertheless, relations between Britain and China remained unstable, culminating in a Second Opium War in 1856-1860. The British were again victorious and the Chinese were forced to cede Kowloon and completely legalize the trade of opium. Despite a now firm presence in the area, the British sought even more territory and in 1898 took advantage of further Chinese military failure, this time at the hands of the Japanese, and agreed to a 99-year lease of 200 islands around Hong Kong known as the ‘New Territories’. Over the following years, the population in Hong Kong boomed and the island became a key port in the British Empire. 

The early 20th century was marked by fears of invasion during World War I, but this did not eventuate and Hong Kong prospered during the war through the introduction of an opium monopoly in 1914. In World War II, Hong Kong would not be so fortunate and when the Japanese attacked at the end of 1941 the British could do little to resist. China had agreed to counter any invasion, but by the time they planned an attack the British had already surrendered to the Japanese. The occupation by the Japanese was bold and by 1943 a new currency had been introduced, streets and parks had been renamed, and strict rules were enforced. The occupation also led to a mass exodus which saw the population decrease on the island by almost 1 million people before the end of the war. It took the dropping of the atomic bombs to end World War II and with it the Japanese withdrawal from Hong Kong. The British returned immediately and re-established themselves on the island. 

The next few decades were far more favourable for Hong Kong. The island went from being solely a trading port to a thriving manufacturing hub in its own right. Infrastructure began to spread across the island, including upwards with the introduction of more high rises. Whilst the 1960s saw some low wages and water shortages, by the 1970s the manufacturing industry had greatly boosted the economy leading to a far higher life expectancy and rate of literacy than had been seen previously. During this period the relationship between Britain and Hong Kong had also remained relatively stable, but the 1980s arguably marked the most defining decade of change since the First Opium War. In December 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed by Margaret Thatcher, the then British Prime Minister, and Zhao Ziyang, who was China’s Premier at the time. This Declaration outlined that China would exercise their sovereignty over Hong Kong and that the British would hand back the island in July 1997. They also agreed that from 1997, a ‘one country, two systems’ approach would be implemented. This meant that while Hong Kong would officially become part of China again, the region would be allowed a fifty year period of continued capitalism and normality. 

By the time Hong Kong was handed back to China the economy on the island was booming and it had become the financial hub which it is known for today. The handover to China did see a number of changes on the island; the role of Chief Executive of Hong Kong was introduced and is chosen by a an Election Committee; the British honours systems and public holidays were replaced with local alternatives; secondary schools had to begin teaching in Cantonese; and most references to the Queen were removed and replaced with reference to the State. However, freedoms to which Hong Kong had become accustomed to remained, such as freedom of the press and the ability for Hong Kong to trade independently within international bodies like the World Trade Organisation. Regardless of the continuation of many freedoms, tensions inevitably arose between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy factions on the island. In 2012, the introduction of a new National Education curriculum sparked protests as many argued it was heavily pro-China and critical of Western nations. This included suggesting that multi-party nations did not function adequately and referring to China’s leading party as ‘progresive, selfless and united’. The Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in 2013 also sought reform, desiring electoral changes to the way the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is elected to reflect true international standards of universal suffrage. Despite electoral reform being promised to the Hong Kong people in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, their protests were to no avail. 

In 2016, Hong Kong elected their first female Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. This was significant in its own right, but this election was even more so given the rise in pro-Beijing seats that had been won. The term of Carrie Lam has already been deeply entrenched with controversy and in 2019 she made international headlines when she attempted to introduce the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. This Bill would have enabled Hong Kong to deport individuals accused of a crime to China to face trial. Many feared that this could be used maliciously and lead to the extradition of political prisoners. It also would have blurred the lines between the legal systems of Hong Kong and China, drawing the two closer together. To the relief of those protesting, their pressure led to the withdrawal of the Bill, although this would not end the tension that was almost at boiling point. This boiling point was arguably reached this year when Hong Kong introduced a new National Security Law. This law criminalised the acts of succession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces, and since it’s introduction in June this law has been applied both frequently and broadly to fuel the agenda of pro-China interests. 

To this day, protests are still ongoing and clashes between pro-democracy activists and the police in Hong Kong occur daily. Notable pro-democracy activists, such as Nathan Law and Simon Cheng, have been forced to flee Hong Kong and seek asylum in other nations around the globe out of fear for their safety. The UK government has condemned the decisions made by Carrie Lam in introducing the National Security Law and the US government has even gone to the extent of imposing financial sanctions on the Chief Executive. The UK government should follow suit and adopt a far tougher approach, particularly as direct signatories of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which is clearly eroding. It is unclear what the next chapter for Hong Kong will hold, but it is clear that they will be far closer to China before the Declaration expires in 2047 and that Britain has lost any influence over the island. Unfortunately, the offer of a route for citizenship for those in Hong Kong that hold a BNO passport is a blunt instrument and in any case, the likelihood is that the majority of those will not take up the offer. Nevertheless, Britain should not disregard the long history they share with Hong Kong, however questionable, and should now act to ensure fundamental freedoms are respected. 

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