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Supporting Hong Kong 1: some history

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Hong Kong has been on a rocky road since 1997, when the Brits reluctantly handed it over to China after 140 years of control. Of course it’s fair to say that the famous east/west entrepôt is largely a product of 19th century British chauvinism. I’ve never been there, though we would’ve spent a few days there later later this month if it hadn’t been for some unfortunate medical problems. So now I’m reading some history and studying maps to get at least a vague feel for the region.

The region called Hong Kong is a complex mix of islands – especially Hong Kong Island – and the mainland Kowloon Peninsula, along with ‘New Territories’ stretching northward to the city of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. Directly east, across the Pearl River Estuary, is Macao, a former Portuguese trading post, now a massive gambling hub, and one of the most densely populated region in the world. Macao, like Hong Kong, is a ‘special administrative region’ of China, though its status doesn’t seem to be under the same kind of threat from China’s Thugburo.

A part of the extended region now known as Hong Kong – which had been Chinese for the best part of 2000 years – was ceded to Britain in the 1840s, after the first Opium War (1839-42). After a second Opium War, Britain gained other territories in the region, but the Brits, unsurprisingly, found it difficult to maintain a far-distant island outpost surrounded by Chinese territory, as well as to justify its right to the area, and in 1898 a deal was brokered in which Britain retained its territories under a 99-year lease. Hence the 1997 hand-over. So ‘British’ Hong Kong consisted of, first, the territory ceded to Britain after the ‘unequal’ treaty of Nanjing in 1842 (essentially Hong Kong Island), second, the territory of mainland Kowloon ceded in 1860 by the Convention of Peking/Beijing (the Kowloon peninsula adjacent to the island), and third the ‘New Territories’ leased to the UK for 99 years at the second Convention of Beijing in 1898 (including the mainland south of the Sham Chun River, which forms the border with Guangdong Province, and assorted islands).

But what were these Opium Wars and what was Britain doing in China in the nineteenth century?

Of course, it was all about trade, finance and power. From early in the nineteenth Britain was importing massive amounts of tea from China for its mandatory tiffins. Tea drinking, starting as an upper-class sine qua non, had trickled down to the masses during the 18th and 19th centuries, much faster than wealth does today. And, while the Brits did manage to introduce its cultivation in its Indian colony, the vast majority of this purifying medicinal leaf was Chinese, resulting in a problematic trade imbalance. The difficulty was that China wasn’t much interested in what Britain had to offer in return, apart from the odd luxury item. According to most experts, China actually had the largest economy in the world in the early 19th century (and for many centuries before), and it had healthy trade surpluses with most western nations.

So that’s where opium came in. It began to be cultivated in Britain in the eighteenth century, where it was perfectly legal and rather revered for its soothing, pain-relieving properties (Paracelsus recommended its use in the 16th century). Available from any British apothecary, its popularity increased markedly in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was accordingly cultivated in ever greater quantities, especially in India. Britain’s East India Company began sending the stuff to China, against the wishes of the Chinese Emperor, who issued many edicts banning it from the 1720s to the 1830s. Millions of Chinese became addicted, especially in the coastal cities visited by East India Company vessels. Things came to a head when a Chinese high official, Lin Tse-hsu, sent a remarkable letter to Queen Victoria in 1839, demanding an end to the trade. Its opening salvo is pretty clear:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [a Chinese mile, about half a kilometre] from China. The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit. Since this profit is realized in China and is in fact taken away from the Chinese people, how can foreigners return injury for the benefit they have received by sending this poison to harm their benefactors?

The letter received no response, and was probably never read by Queen Vic, but it gives an indication of Chinese frustration and anger. Lin Tse-hsu, implacably opposed to the trade, was placed in charge of bringing it to an end. Within a brief period, more a thousand tons of the drug were confiscated without compensation, and foreign ships were blockaded. The Brits responded as powerful countries are wont to do, and the first opium war was the result. The Qing government, riven with internal problems, was no match for its foreign adversary (assisted by other European powers) and was forced to cede the aforementioned territory as well as to pay sizeable reparations. It also had to cough up some land and trading rights to France.

And then it all happened again. Between the first and second opium wars, civil war raged in China, and a rival emperor was enthroned in Nanjing, where the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was modestly proclaimed (in fact its aim was to slaughter all the Manchus in China), so it wasn’t a good time to provoke the rapacious Brits again. However, a new foreigner-hating administrator in Canton did just that, whipping up local support to target traders and missionaries. Again the French helped out, and Britain prevailed once more, gaining new territories, ports and trading privileges.

While these gunboat diplomacy skirmishes weren’t much compared to the slaughter and mayhem the Chinese were inflicting on each other during the Taiping rebellion, their future implications were obviously enormous for the Hong Kong region. The population grew rapidly after colonisation, and the region was gradually being transformed from an entrepôt to a manufacturing centre, with refugees from the ‘mainland’ being attracted to its relative stability as well as employment opportunities. By the 1940s, the population had grown from a few thousand a century before to over a million, but then the Japanese occupation (1941-45) rapidly reversed the trend. By the time of liberation the population had been cut by more than half. Many starved, while others managed to escape.

The post-war period saw a rise in anti-colonial sentiment (a trend bucked by the Zionists, obviously), and Britain had to make political and economic concessions to the locals to maintain its strategic colony. It was both assisted and hampered by a new influx of immigrants from mainland China, as the ’49 revolution took hold. Since that time, Hong Kong has experienced steady, rapid growth, from a population of 2.2 million in 1950 to 6.7 million in 2001. Its reputation also grew as a producer of quality goods.

So that was the situation when the 99 year lease ran out. Hong Kong was a thriving multicultural centre, and China an awakened giant, its democratic momentum crushed in Tianenmen Square. The handover had been negotiated with a ‘one country, two systems’ deal which would last for fifty years, after, which, presumably, the Thugburo would be free to dictate terms. And this thoroughly superficial and at-a-distance historical tour brings us to the present state of a fascinating, more or less accidental, but financially successful (for many), experiment in business and trade multiculturalism.

Next time I’ll look more closely at the 1997 handover and how Hong Kong has been governed over the past 20 or so years.

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Hong_Kong

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-16526765

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Opium_War

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Nanking

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin_Zexu

Written by stewart henderson

August 10, 2019 at 11:18 am