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World: Key Dates In Hong Kong's History

  • Stuart Parrott

Hong Kong, 24 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - The small, hilly, treeless granite island known to the British as Hong Kong (the name is variously interpreted as meaning Incense Port or Fragrant Harbor) was seized by a British Royal Navy party on January 26, 1841.

It was the first piece of the Celestial Kingdom to be ceded to the Outer Barbarians (as the expansionist European powers were known) and its seizure came amid Chinese failure to stop the trade in Indian opium, conducted by aggressive British merchants.

The seizure of Hong Kong created immense social and economic problems in China, caused by drug dependency and a catastrophic outflow of China's national currency, Spanish silver, which was used to pay for the opium. The following timeline takes a look at important dates since the British takeover.

1842: China is forced to cede Hong Kong by the Treaty of Nanjing, which came after China humiliatingly lost the first Opium War against the British.

1898: Britain and China sign the second Convention of Beijing, under which the ailing Qing Dynasty leased the New Territories, a chunk of the mainland over the harbor from Hong Kong island, to Britain for 99 years. The new additions made up 90 percent of Hong Kong's present land mass. Hong Kong island is dependent on water, power and food from the New Territories.

1949: One of the defining moments in Hong Kong's history comes at the end of the Chinese Civil war in 1949, when Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai establish a communist republic on the mainland. Many thousands of Shanghai's entrepreneurs and industrialists flee south from the People's Liberation Army to the haven of Hong Kong, bringing with them valuable expertise, and helping to lay the seeds for its success.

1950: China goes to war in Korea against forces allied under the United Nations. The consequent interruption of all Western trade with China transformed the colony's functions. Until then, it had been primarily an entrepot, through which commerce with China could pass. But, in the 1950s, a western boycott of all Chinese goods ended Hong Kong's role as an entrepot, and forced it to find a new way to earn a living. It transformed itself in the next few decades into an immense manufacturing and trading center. The flow of Chinese refugees from the mainland provided an inexhaustible source of labor for its low-wage, low-cost factories which exported to countries around the world.

1979: The British colonial governor of Hong Kong, Murray Maclehose, visits Beijing. The future of the New Territories land lease is discussed, but not resolved. Both China and Britain are quiet about the substance of their discussions, something that still rankles among democratic activists in Hong Kong who argue that the future of the territory was decided behind closed doors without the input of the people most affected -- the 6.3 million Hong Kongers.

1984: The Sino-British Joint Declaration is signed after several years of British-Chinese negotiations. It provides for the return of Chinese rule over Hong Kong under a "one country, two system" plan. The document stipulates that Hong Kong will not pay taxes to Beijing and will remain a free port and financial center.

1989: China's crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square traumatizes Hong Kong. Up to one million people take part in an unprecedented demonstration to protest the sacrifice of the mostly-young Chinese activists who lost their lives in a campaign for an end to corruption in China and for political reform of the Chinese communist party. The anniversary of Tiananmen Square has been marked every year since, most recently earlier this month when an estimated 55,000 Hong Kongers staged a candlit vigil. Analysts say Tiananmen Square marked a watershed in Hong Kong's history because it made people focus on what will happen to civil liberties after Beijing resumes sovereignty.

1995: Hong Kong's governor introduces election reforms allowing direct elections to some legislative seats. Democrats take most of the seats. China responds a year later by appointing a replacement body composed of mainland officials and pro-China officials from Hong Kong who will oversee the transition to Chinese rule.

1 July 1997: With more than 10,000 journalists and dignitaries on hand, Britain formally returns Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. The provisional legislature chosen by China will be sworn in on the same day.

1998: The first legislative elections since the handover are due to take place. It will be closely watched by the international community to see whether democrats are allowed to fully participate.