Hong Kong was ceded to the British Empire after the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the Union Jack was raised on 26th January 1842 formally at Possession Point. Hong Kong had become a Crown Colony. Not satisfied with merely controlling the island and its harbours, the British extended their area of control to encompass the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 and the New Territories in 1898. They claimed this extension was undertaken for defensive purposes.
From the beginning of British rule Hong Kong was a free port, an entrepot of the British Empire; the area was industrialised and improved and the population increased dramatically. A real benefit of acquiring Hong Kong was that it provided firms with a base for their opium-smuggling operations[i] and to provide access to the long sought after China trade.[ii]
The area was occupied briefly by Japan during the Second World War, when British and Canadian forces were over run and forced to surrender. Hong Kong fell to the rapidly advancing Japanese army on 25th December 1941. The success of the Japanese army which soon spread throughout the region threatened to turn the tide of the war.
During the Japanese occupation, the citizens of Hong Kong were treated abominably and brutally and by the time the war was over and Britain had reclaimed the region in 1945, the population of Hong Kong had plummeted from 1.6 million to just 600,000 in the space of three years.
In 1983, after years being a Crown Colony the debate between Britain and China opened over the future sovereignty of Hong Kong, after the ninety-nine-year lease under which the region was acquired was coming to an end.[iii] As a result the Sino-British Joint Declaration was agreed in 1984 which formally transferred sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China. The hand-over date was set to take place in 1997. July 1st 1997 marked the end of the 156 year British colonial rule with the final transfer of power being marked with a ‘display of imperial theatre’.[iv]
[i] Ferguson, Niall, Empire How Britain Made the Modern World, 2002 page 166
[ii] James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1994 p241
[iii] Ibid p629
[iv] Ibid p636