Hong Kong, China and Britain

Miss Julie, a Storyhouse Originals production, is set in 1940s Hong Kong. Here we delve into the politics of Hong Kong in the 1940s and onwards…

There was a time when the sun never set on Britain’s Empire, with its dominions, crown colonies and protectorates turning vast swathes of the Atlas pink.

But it was the actions of the land of the rising sun which helped hasten a sea change in one far-flung outpost of British rule, Hong Kong. In the early 20th century, while the British made up around just four percent of the Far East colony’s population, ingrained colonial attitudes and a class system based on nationality meant they dominated Hong Kong life along with its leading institutions and legislatures.

Unlike other parts of the Empire such as India, even very junior administrative roles were assigned to expats, while personal relationships between Europeans and Chinese were, if not illegal, then certainly frowned upon. The crown colony was also divided along physical lines. In 1902, 20,000 acres of Kowloon had been earmarked solely for Europeans, while before the First World War there were proposals – albeit never realised – to segregate parks and public transport.

Chinese people were barred from living in certain areas, notably the prestigious Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island, while even in death the citizens were separated – the Colonial Cemetery in Happy Valley was for the privileged (Protestant) few while there were different cemeteries for Eurasians and Chinese. One of the few figures who did manage to bestride both was wealthy Eurasian businessman Sir Robert Hotung, dubbed ‘the grand old man of Hong Kong’, who was the first non-European to live on the Peak and whose final resting place was alongside the colonial elite.

Robert Hotung

It was the Second World War that would ultimately become the catalyst for change. In December 1941, the Japanese – who had been waging war in mainland China since 1937, invaded and within two weeks had overrun Hong Kong’s defenders who included a plucky Dad’s Army-style volunteer force led by an insurance manager.

Governor Sir Mark Young had only been in position for two months while Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson had terrible timing, arriving on the day of invasion itself. Despite that the determined career colonial servant, who was interned with hundreds of other Western PoWs, would be instrumental in returning Hong Kong to British rule in 1945.

Japan’s boast of liberating Hong Kong from Britain’s evil colonial grasp was undermined by its brutal and arrogant treatment of the population (judged against which Britain’s governorship seemed positively benign) who were subject to face-slapping in the street, beatings and torture. Hundreds of thousands were also forcibly deported to mainland China.

With peace, many returned – augmented by swathes of refugees fleeing the conflict between China’s warring nationalist and communist forces.

But although Britain took back control and worked quickly to restore Hong Kong’s physical infrastructure and institutions (Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt who had accepted the Japanese surrender described priorities as ‘freedom, food, law and order and a stable currency’), the political and cultural landscape, and the British position within it, had irrevocably shifted.

It was mostly Chinese flags that had fluttered on the waterfront to welcome Hong Kong’s liberators in 1945. And ‘the runaway British’ were no longer viewed with the deference that had been afforded them in pre-war era. In practical terms, the general lack of British on hand meant more jobs and administrative posts were instead filled by ambitious Chinese workers.

And historic segregation also started to break down, even if the freer attitude came through gritted teeth for some; by the end of the 1940s anyone with enough wealth could live the high life on the Peak and Chinese were being admitted to previously closed institutions and clubs.

Universal suffrage remained a pipe dream, however.

Still, another constant was Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from Westminster, and by the early 1970s, a policy of positive non-interventionism helped it become one of the four booming ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, a capitalist powerhouse off the coast of communist China. A further thing that didn’t change was the idea of Hong Kong as a ‘safe haven’ from turmoil in mainland China, first from the communist victory in 1949, and later Mao’s cultural revolution.

They were part of a shadow which remained on the horizon. The New Territories had been leased from China for 99 years in 1898, and despite Hong Kong Island and Kowloon being permanently ceded to Britain, it was – in practical terms – impossible to separate one part from the other. With China refusing any suggestion of a continuing British administration, all faced being returned in 1997.

Handover talks culminated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration – the so-called one country, two systems – which gave Hong Kong a level of autonomy and freedom under basic law and in which China agreed to maintain Hong Kong’s way of life unchanged until 2047.

On July 1 1997, 150 years of British rule ended and independent-spirited Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic – effectively swapping one master for another. China’s authoritarian stance, its perceived ‘mainlandisation’ of Hong Kong and its interpretation of the Joint Declaration prompted large demonstrations from as early as 2003 when half-a-million people marched in protest at a proposed new ‘anti-subversion’ law.

While it had claimed under the British there was no freedom or democracy in the colony, China then itself ruled any changes to Hong Kong’s election laws could not happen without its approval.

Although it later said it would allow the people of Hong Kong to directly elect their own leader, in 2014 it went back on the pledge, stating only candidates approved by Beijing would be allowed to run for office. Massive pro-democracy demonstrations engulfed Hong Kong in what was dubbed the Umbrella Revolution, and ongoing, widespread civil unrest has left the former colony teetering on the verge of a civil war.

A postcard of Hong Kong in the 1940s