The history of Hong Kong: from the backwater to the trading metropolis

Modern Hong Kong is best known for its skyscrapers and its role as a bustling financial center and regional trade channel off the southern coast of mainland China.

But once this territory was a quiet backwater of rural villages and fishing villages, where mountainous terrain prevailed over sparse human settlements.

Twenty-five years after the city was returned to China by the British colonial power, here are the highlights of its evolution:

– Ancient history –

The remains of burial grounds and early rock paintings show human life in Hong Kong as far back as the Stone Age.

It is believed that this territory became part of the Chinese Empire during the Han Dynasty between 206 BC. and 220 AD

Increasing numbers of Han Chinese from the mainland began to settle in Hong Kong, along with boat-dwelling communities thought to also originate from southern China.

– Trading boom –

Hong Kong’s sheltered main harbor became a resupply point for merchant ships plying the Maritime Silk Road between Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which flourished from around the 7th century.

In addition to silk, China exported porcelain and tea and received everything from spices to plants and textiles.

The outlying islands of Hong Kong were also a haven for Chinese pirates – its current territory includes 260 islands, many of which are uninhabited.

– European check-in –

Portuguese, Dutch and French traders arrived on the south coast of China in the 1500s and Portugal established a base in Macau, next to Hong Kong.

But in the 18th century, China imposed restrictions on Europeans in an attempt to contain their influence.

Britain was outraged after an imperial decree banned it from trading opium from India to China, which led to the spread of drug addiction.

After Chinese authorities confiscated a large shipment of drugs, Britain attacked in 1840 and reached northern China, threatening Beijing during the First Opium War.

To make peace, China agreed to cede Hong Kong Island to Great Britain in 1841.

The Kowloon Peninsula followed in 1860 after the second Opium War, and in 1898 Britain expanded north into the rural New Territories, leasing the area for 99 years.

– British rule –

Hong Kong was part of the British Empire until 1997 when the New Territories lease expired and the entire city was returned to China.

Under British rule, Hong Kong developed into a commercial and financial center with one of the busiest harbors in the world.

Anti-colonial sentiment sparked riots in 1967 that led to some social and political reforms – by the time it was returned to China, the city already had a partially elected legislature and retained an independent judiciary.

Hong Kong prospered when China opened up its economy in the late 1970s, becoming the gateway between the rising power and the rest of the world.

– Return to China –

After lengthy negotiations, including between former leader Deng Xiaoping and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the two sides agreed in 1984 on the future handover of Hong Kong.

The Sino-British Declaration states that Hong Kong will be a Special Administrative Region of China and will retain its freedoms and way of life for 50 years after the handover date of July 1, 1997.

Beijing says Hong Kong’s “One country, two systems” model remains intact.

But critics, including the UK and other Western powers, say China has eviscerated the city’s unique freedoms, especially since the massive democratic protests that erupted in 2019.