Exploring Chinese History
East Asian Region
- Hong Kong -

Hong Kong, administrative region of China, consisting of a mainland portion located on the country's southeastern coast and more than 200 islands. Hong Kong is bordered on the north by Guangdong Province and on the east, west, and south by the South China Sea. Hong Kong was a British dependency from the 1840s until July 1, 1997, when it passed to Chinese sovereignty as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).

The British control of Hong Kong began in 1842, when China was forced to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain after the First Opium War. In 1984 Britain and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which stipulated that Hong Kong return to Chinese rule in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. The Joint Declaration and a Chinese law called the Basic Law, which followed in 1990, provide for the SAR to operate with a high degree of economic autonomy for 50 years beyond 1997.

The total land area of Hong Kong is small, comprising only 1076 sq km (415 sq mi). The surrounding territorial waters cover 1830 sq km (707 sq mi). Hong Kong's mainland portion consists of the urban area of Kowloon and a portion of the New Territories, a large area that became part of Hong Kong in 1898. Lantau Island (also called Tai Yue Island), ceded to Hong Kong as part of the New Territories but often considered separate from that region, is the largest island. Hong Kong Island, across Victoria Harbor from Kowloon and about 10 km (about 6 mi) east of Lantau, houses the SAR government and the chief business district, known as Central.

Despite Hong Kong's small size, the topography is varied and rugged because it is largely comprised of folded mountains. There are more than 20 peaks over 500 m (over 1640 ft), and the tallest, Tai Mo Shan in the New Territories, rises to 957 m (3140 ft). Hong Kong's greatest asset is its deep and well-protected harbor between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. Level land for development is scarce. Less than 15 percent of the land is developed because of the rugged terrain. Land reclamation schemes began in the mid-19th century and they continue to be important means of acquiring new land for urban development. Examples of reclaimed land include stretches of coastline on either side of Victoria Harbor.

The only significant river is the Sham Chun, a small river that forms the northern border with Guangdong; all other drainage is comprised of small streams. The lack of sufficient drinking water is a serious problem; more than 80 percent of Hong Kong's potable water comes from Guangdong.

Hong Kong's climate is subtropical and monsoonal. The average daily temperature range is 26° to 31° C (78° to 87° F) in July and 13° to 17° C (55° to 63° F) in February. Rainfall averages 2159 mm (85 in) a year. Summers, which last from May to September, are long, hot, and humid. Typhoons regularly cross Hong Kong in summer and autumn. These powerful storms bring violent winds and extremely heavy rains that occasionally cause flooding and landslides. The winter, lasting from December to March, is cool and drier.

The heavy rainfall washes away many nutrients from the soil, making it generally thin, poor, and unsuitable for intensive agriculture. Moreover, there is little available land for farm cultivation. Most of the original forest vegetation was long ago cut or burned and replaced with grasses or planted tree species such as pine and eucalyptus. Wooded hills now account for about one-fifth of the land area, whereas grasslands, badlands, and swamps make up more than one-half.

Hong Kong, in association with the World Wide Fund for Nature, maintains an important marsh reserve for birds, Mai Po, along Hau Hoi Bay (also called Deep Bay) and the river boundary with Guangdong. Mai Po attracts about 260 bird species, among them numerous ducks, wading birds, kingfishers, warblers, and marsh harriers. The reserve is an important stopping point for migratory birds flying between Siberia and tropical Southeast Asia and Australia. In addition to birds, Hong Kong also has numerous small mammals and reptiles.

At the time of the 1991 census, Hong Kong had a population of 5,674,114. The estimated 1996 population was 6,305,413, indicating a population density of about 5860 persons per sq km (about 15,194 per sq mi). The population is unevenly distributed, however, with the greatest concentrations of people in Kowloon and across the harbor on Hong Kong Island. Some districts, such as Mong Kok in Kowloon, have population densities of about 40,000 persons per sq km (about 100,000 per sq mi), among the highest urban densities in the world. Although birth and death rates are comparatively low in Hong Kong, migration from other parts of China creates a high population growth rate, and migrants now make up about 40 percent of the population.

About 98 percent of the people are ethnic Han Chinese. Of these, 90 percent speak the Cantonese dialect of Chinese and come from southern China, or are descendants of people who originated there. The remaining 10 percent of Han Chinese come from other regions of China and speak other Chinese dialects. About 2 percent of the total population come from or have ancestors who came from foreign countries, most from Southeast Asia. Many people practice ancestral worship, owing to the influence of Confucianism, but all major religions are represented. Chinese and English are Hong Kong's official languages.

From 1984 to 1997, due to the uncertainty of the transition back to China, thousands of well-educated and wealthy Hong Kong citizens moved to countries such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, where they obtained permanent residency status or citizenship. However, many returned to Hong Kong after their initial emigration, and they will likely remain there as long as conditions remain stable.

In 1973 the Hong Kong government began a massive program of housing construction and industrial relocation in the New Territories. The program is an attempt to lessen the crowding of Kowloon and the Central district of Hong Kong Island, and to reduce the demand for transportation by building planned communities near employment centers. Since many people in Hong Kong prefer living near their workplace, this approach has helped to accommodate Hong Kong's large population on its small area of land. By 1990 almost 3 million people, about half of Hong Kong's total population, were living in public housing. Many were in planned towns in the New Territories.

Education is free and compulsory for all children from the ages 6 to 15, and adult literacy is over 90 percent. Only a small percentage of high school graduates attend college or university on a full-time basis, however. There are seven colleges and universities, including two polytechnic schools. The largest and oldest institution of higher learning is the University of Hong Kong, founded in 1911, with more than 10,000 students. The Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts offers courses in dance, music, theater, and technical arts. There are also more than a dozen technical institutes, technical colleges, and teacher-training colleges, which have large numbers of part-time students.

Hong Kong has a variety of cultural attractions and activities. The Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Hong Kong International Film Festival are annual events. Professional music companies include the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, and the Hong Kong Dance Company. The territory has a thriving film and television industry. One of Hong Kong's most popular actors is Jackie Chan, who is known for his starring roles and stunts in action movies.

Hong Kong's prosperous economy is reflected in the lifestyle of its people. They have one of the highest standards of living in all of Asia, and it is more than 30 times higher than China's average standard of living. In 1994 Hong Kong's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) was $21,650, although much of the wealth is concentrated into relatively few hands.

Hong Kong's position as one of the world's most important economic centers is based on several factors. It is located midway between Japan and Singapore, and it lies astride the main shipping and air routes of the western Pacific. It also has long served as a major port of entry and trade for China, which uses Hong Kong as a primary link to the world economy. Furthermore, Hong Kong has a favorable atmosphere for business and trade. Despite the uncertainty associated with its return to China, which has a Communist government, Hong Kong continues to thrive economically and attract new migrants. Hong Kong's economy has always been based upon commerce, trade, and shipping, and today it vies with Singapore as the world's largest container port. Industry and tourism are also important, and agriculture continues to provide a significant share of the territory's food and flower supplies, although Hong Kong must import the majority of its food.

Farming is a declining sector, because of the shortage of suitable farmland. There are now less than 2000 hectares (5000 acres) under cultivation for vegetables and flowers, although these produce about one-quarter of the fresh vegetables consumed. Increasingly, farmers are growing premium food and flower varieties, which fetch higher market prices than the traditional rice crop. Pig farming is also important. Hong Kong's fishing fleet is significant and contributes about two-thirds of the live and fresh marine fish consumed each year.

Manufacturing developed rapidly in the 1950s and grew to become the most important economic sector in the early 1980s, when manufacturing employment reached nearly 905,000. It quickly declined in the following decade, however, as Hong Kong manufacturers began shifting the location of their production facilities to neighboring Guangdong Province, where labor costs were much lower. By the early 1990s industrial employment had declined to less than 575,000. Manufactured products include clothing, textiles, toys, plastics, electronics, and watches and clocks. However, these products are gradually being replaced by manufactures that require a more highly educated and skilled labor force to produce.

Hong Kong is among the leading trading centers in the world, and shipping and trade continue to be important aspects of its economy. The market is generally open and favorable to trade, and Hong Kong has been successful at balancing its imports and exports. Many of its exports are actually re-exports, products that are manufactured in other parts of China, or in Japan, Taiwan, the United States, or South Korea but distributed through Hong Kong. These products include clothing, textiles, telecommunications and recording equipment, electrical machinery and appliances, and footwear. Imports consist largely of consumer goods, raw materials, transportation equipment, and foodstuffs. Extensive trade occurs with other regions of China. In addition, Hong Kong's leading international trading partners are the United States and Japan.

The unit of currency is the Hong Kong dollar (7.73 Hong Kong dollars equal U.S.$1; 1996). The Hong Kong Monetary Authority performs the functions of a central bank and authorizes three commercial banks-the Bank of China, HSBC (formerly the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation), and the Standard Chartered Bank-to issue Hong Kong dollars. The terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 allow Hong Kong to continue issuing its own currency until the year 2047.

Tourism is one of Hong Kong's most important service activities and it is the third largest source of foreign exchange earnings. In the early 1990s, nearly 9 million tourists visited Hong Kong each year, spending more than $7 billion annually. Most visitors came from Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and other locations in East and Southeast Asia. Many European and North American tourists also visited.

In addition to its excellent deepwater port and extensive maritime connections, Hong Kong has one of Asia's main airports, the Hong Kong International Airport. Located on the islet of Chek Lap Kok off Lantau Island, the airport opened in 1998, replacing the old Kai Tak International Airport. There is passenger and freight rail service to Guangzhou.

Hong Kong has an extensive network of roads in the New Territories, in Kowloon, and on Hong Kong Island. This network is supplemented by the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), which connects Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. The MTR serves nearly 800 million passengers annually. A 33-km (21-mi) long electric trolley line operates on Hong Kong Island, and ferries shuttle between the mainland, Hong Kong Island, and all other major outlying islands.

Prior to July 1, 1997, Hong Kong was a British dependent territory. As such, a British-appointed governor, representing the British crown, headed the Hong Kong government and exercised authority over civil and military matters. The governor presided over a 14-member Executive Council that advised him on all important matters. A 60-member Legislative Council (Legco)-which under Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, was in part popularly elected-enacted laws and oversaw the budget.

Under Chinese rule, a chief executive, appointed to a maximum of two five-year terms, heads the government of the Hong Kong SAR. In December 1996 a committee of 400 members, all appointed by China, selected Tung Chee-hwa as the SAR's first chief executive. The chief executive presides over the Executive Council, whose members assist the chief executive in policy-making decisions. The lawmaking body of the Hong Kong SAR is a 60-member Legislative Council. A Provisional Legislative Council of 60 members, who were appointed by China, initially served as Hong Kong's legislature. Elections for the First Legislative Council were held in May 1998. Twenty members from five geographic constituencies were directly elected under a system of proportional representation, where legislative seats are awarded to a political party in proportion to the number of popular votes it receives. The remaining members were appointed or indirectly elected, with 10 members chosen by an electoral college and 30 members selected through functional constituencies representing a variety of business, community, and social interests. In future legislative elections, the number of directly elected representatives will increase. The judiciary is independent and laws are based on English common law and the rules of equity. Judges are appointed by the chief executive.

The first permanent settlement in what is today Hong Kong probably occurred about 2000 years ago during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Little growth took place until the 19th century, owing to China's imperial policy of inward development, with a focus away from developing the resources of coastal areas. Also, despite Hong Kong's proximity to the port city of Guangzhou, all foreign trade with China was controlled through a small Chinese merchant guild in Guangzhou known as the Co-hong, and contact with foreigners was highly restricted.

The British, who wished to expand their trading opportunities along China's coast, became interested in Hong Kong in the early 19th century. They also desired a location to serve as a naval re- supply point, similar to the role Singapore was playing at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. The trade of opium, a highly profitable product for British merchants and eventually an illegal import into China, led to the Opium Wars and Britain's acquisition of Hong Kong. In 1839 the Chinese Special Commissioner imprisoned some British merchants in Guangzhou and confiscated opium warehouses. The merchants were released, but the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, dispatched naval forces and war ensued. The British had a superior naval force and won easily, occupying Hong Kong Island in 1841.

One year later, China and Britain signed the Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking) which ceded Hong Kong Island and adjacent small islands in perpetuity to Britain. Treaty disputes and other incidents led to the Second Opium War in 1856, also won by Britain. The conflict ended with the ratification of the Treaty of Tianjin in 1860. Among other provisions, this treaty ceded 10 sq km (4 sq mi) of the Kowloon Peninsula to Britain, thereby allowing the British to establish firm control over the excellent natural harbor between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. In 1898 China leased the New Territories to Britain for 99 years, adding more than 900 sq km (350 sq mi) of land and considerable territorial waters to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong grew slowly during the 19th century, although gaining the New Territories added a substantial rural population. By 1900 there were perhaps as many as 100,000 people. The territory began to grow more rapidly in the 20th century as employment in Hong Kong's developing light industries attracted Chinese immigrants. Instability in China associated with the Republican Revolution of 1911 and World War I (1914-1918) also stimulated Chinese to move to Hong Kong. This wave of population growth was halted during World War II (1939-1945) when Japanese forces invaded and occupied Hong Kong for almost four years. After the war Hong Kong had a population of about 600,000 people. A new wave of population growth occurred when Chinese immigration resumed after World War II and a growing civil war in China further prompted migrants to move to Hong Kong. By 1947 the population had reached about 1.8 million.

Hong Kong's greatest growth and development occurred after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, when the commercial and shipping functions of Guangzhou and Shanghai shifted to Hong Kong. In addition, new industrial investments based on low-cost and productive labor led to rapid expansion of industrial employment. Although officially cut off from easy ties with China during the early decades of the Communist regime, trade and travel between Hong Kong and China in fact flourished. Hong Kong served as China's window to the world during the Chinese administration of Mao Zedong. After Mao's death in 1976, Hong Kong's role as a banker to China, and as its supplier of information, technology, and capital, intensified.

In the 1980s the impending 1997 expiration of Britain's lease of the New Territories necessitated negotiations between Britain and China. Britain agreed to return all of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty at the end of the lease and the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984. Despite the change in Hong Kong's political status on July 1, 1997, the region has continued to strive to maintain its economic role and the confidence of the world community in its banking, trading, and shipping.

Contributed By: Clifton W. Pannell

Additional Information:

Hong Kong began its unique existence in the world as a small port city around 1000 CE. The city did not increase in population or size until the Qing dynasty began in China in 1610 CE. The Modern Hong Kong began when the British East India Company required a port on the mainland to ease in trading. A lease 99 years in length was drawn up and Hong Kong then became part of the British Empire. When the mainland fell to Nationalists in 1912 CE, Hong Kong remained a British Colony, as per the lease agreement. During WWII, the colony was occupied by Japanese forces in an attempt to gain a foothold on the mainland, south of Manchukuo. In 1947, US and ANZAC forces liberated the colony, and it was once again ruled by the British. The economy flourished, the population grew and airplanes had to land in the middle of downtown. As one of the last territories of the now defunct British Empire, upon which the sun never set at one time, Hong Kong was an important part of England's economy. Its people were comfortable in their freedoms and liberties despite the rather high cost of living and taxes. In the early 1990's, British and Chinese diplomats met to discuss Hong Kong's future once the lease expired in 1997. It was agreed that the colony would become a Special Administrative Region, under which the people of Hong Kong would continue to enjoy certain freedoms and liberties not granted to Chinese citizens on the Mainland. This agreement brought comfort to both the British government and the people of Hong Kong. The years prior to the lease expiration saw the British government offer Hong Kong citizens the option of becoming British citizens, thus having the opportunity to leave the colony when the transition took place. About 87% of the population took the offer. In 1997, a small ceremony was held in the presence of Ju Rongji, the Chinese Prime Minister, Tung Chee- Hwa, future Governor of the Hong Kong SAR and Prince Charles, representing the British Crown, at which the colony was officially handed over to Chinese rule. Fewer than 5% of those who opted for British citizenship actually left the island and are still considered British citizens. There have been more than a few problems for China since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule. The "Right of Abode" issue has yet to be settled, for example. Xinhua, the official State news agency began controlling the South China Morning Post in 1999. Less than wealthy residents are being relocated by the Chinese government to cities like Shanghai and Nanjing, or to the country side. Tung Chee-Hwa has had to institute martial law in the region twice since 1997, both as a result of minor protests. Certain companies are moving their headquarters to Japan or Taiwan, where child labor is not the norm for production. In 2000, the Hong Kong economy was declared in recession by the World Bank. The EU has reduced trade with Hong Kong, sitting violations of the Sino- British Fair Treatment Agreement and human rights issues. Points to ponder as China prepares for entry into the WTO and enjoys NTR status with the US and similar trade status with many other industrialized nations.

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