Published: 00:12, April 10, 2020 | Updated: 04:56, June 6, 2023
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Why was Hong Kong not a colony of Britain before 1997?
By Xiao Ping

Editor’s note: The following is the fifth article of a series focusing on the “one country, two systems” principle.

Before 1997, Britain regarded Hong Kong as its “overseas territory”, an alias for colony. However, Hong Kong was in fact not a colony; it was merely under the colonial rule of the British. It is very important to note the difference, which will help us understand the significance of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland and see the ulterior motives of Britain’s “glorious retreat” as well as the absurdity of Hong Kong independence.

In the eyes of British colonists, Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were “permanently ceded”, thus Britain had sovereignty over these two territories. Even though the New Territories was leased for 99 years, “the empire on which the sun never set” did not need to worry about giving it back to China, a poor and crumbling nation back then. Without a doubt, the British government ran Hong Kong as a colony in the capacity of suzerain.

No Chinese government since the demise of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) recognized the unfair treaties that ceded Hong Kong to the United Kingdom and gave up China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong

However, that was just their assumption. No Chinese government since the demise of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) recognized the unfair treaties that ceded Hong Kong to the United Kingdom and gave up China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. Soon after the People’s Republic of China took over the country’s seat at the United Nations in October 1971, it wrote to the UN Special Committee on Decolonization and solemnly declared that both Hong Kong and Macao are Chinese territories that were occupied by the UK and Portugal respectively under a series of unequal treaties they had forced the Qing Dynasty’s rulers to sign. The letter also states that resolving the questions of Hong Kong and Macao is a matter within China’s sovereignty; the two cities must not be treated as “colonies” in the usual sense of the word. A month later, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution by a vote of 99-5 that removed Hong Kong and Macao from the list of existing colonies. By doing so, China reconfirmed a historical fact and reaffirmed its sovereignty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Independence movements swept across colonies after World War II, some of which changed their relationship with their former suzerains forever, and declared independence to become sovereign states. Hong Kong was not one of them, however, because it was not a colony to begin with and China has never handed its sovereignty over the territory to another country. Therefore, ideas such as sovereignty and national independence are not applicable to Hong Kong. By removing Hong Kong from the UN list of non-self-governing territories, China effectively eliminated any sovereignty dispute and cleared the path for Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. That is why neither the Sino-British Joint Declaration nor the Basic Law contains the words “resuming sovereignty (over Hong Kong)”. Instead, they use the words “resuming the exercise of sovereignty (over Hong Kong)”. The Basic Law illuminates this issue at the very beginning, as its preamble starts with “Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times” and Article 1 says “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China”. 

Britain, the old imperial power, has never left its former colonies a clean slate when its rule approached its end. It always pursued “glorious retreat” by force-feeding its colonies with crude democratic elections that tended to divide rather than unite the society, allowing the former colonial master to maintain its influence there forever. As a result, those newly independent nations have long suffered from social unrest and weak government. Likewise, the British Hong Kong government played this trick during the lead-up to its departure. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, initiated an electoral cram course that he has proudly described as a process of turning the city into a democracy. In doing so, he single-handedly destroyed the “through-train” arrangement for the city’s old legislature to become the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong SAR. Britain denied Hong Kong society any form of democracy for well over a century before it signed the joint declaration with China in 1984. Then in a great rush, it launched a process to “hand the government back to the people”. Many cannot help but suspect what Britain really wanted for Hong Kong was self-determination instead of democracy

As for an assortment of pro-independence fantasies that popped up in recent years — such as “Hong Kong as a city-state” and “Hong Kong as a nation”, along with ridiculous demonstrations of love for the colonial past — all are illusionary ideas divorced from reality with no legal basis.

The author is a veteran current affairs commentator. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.