The Anomaly of Hong Kong (Part 1)

by Nick Lo:

“Hong Kong — that’s in China, right?”

Yes, it is in China, but it is also fundamentally different from Shanghai and Beijing. Most people know that Hong Kong was a former British colony, the pearl of the Orient. Only 14 years ago, Hong Kong was returned to the motherland, but it retains a distinct character — for now.

Hong Kong is home to seven million people. (Courtesy David Iliff, CC by SA 3.0)

Backtrack one hundred years, to a time when British colonialism was reaching its peak. China was ruled by the Qing Dynasty, which was weakened by corruption and internal dissent. Colonial powers established spheres of influence along the Eastern coast of China, and the British were stuck with a dinky little rock off the Southern coast. From that fishing village, the East India Trading Company imported thousands of chests of opium, with which they ensnared the Chinese populace in a drug-induced haze. In response, the Qing Dynasty officials decided to hold their own version of the Boston Tea Party, burning copious amounts of opium. This act of defiance set off the two Opium Wars. As a result, the current territory of Hong Kong was formally ceded to the British Empire.

By the 1980s, Hong Kong was a thriving hub of trade and commerce; business was booming, and the city was considered one of the Four Asian Tigers. Yet the Tiananmen Massacre in Beijing resulted in a mass emigration of businessmen fearing for the safety of their money. Communist China was bearing down upon the island city of Hong Kong. Tens of thousands of residents left for the more capitalist-friendly shores of Canada and the UK, and thus “HongCouver” was born.

Fortunately, the businessmen’s worst nightmares never materialized. Hong Kong’s free market economy (touted as one of the freest in the world) remains undisturbed. After the handover back to China in 1997, the city retained its status as a separate entity from the mainland. At that time, Deng Xiaoping adopted the policy of “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong has its own constitution (known as Basic Law), its own currency, and even its own language. As a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong, along with Macau, controls its own financial policy, as well as the different administrative branches of government.

One key factor that distinguishes Hong Kong from any other Chinese city is its degree of political freedom. No other city in China would allow protests of over 500,000 people to take place. Radio shows and newspapers routinely criticize the Beijing government, without fear of reprisal. The lack of censorship is something that most Hong Kongers pride themselves upon. Case in point: an anti-subversion amendment to the Basic Law, known as Article 23, which would have criminalized subversion and treason against the Chinese government, was so fiercely opposed by the Hong Kong populace that the proposal was axed. And every year, an annual protest on July 1st has been held to demand full democracy and universal suffrage.

Hong Kong is no stranger to political protests. (Courtesy Kiasuafezni, CC by SA 3.0)

However, whether such a vibrant democratic scene will last or not is uncertain. Advocates of democracy do not look forward to 2047, when the law that “the previous capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years” will expire. China has begun to cast its shadow, and Hong Kong’s future has been cast in uncertainty.

Nick Lo ’15 is in Ezra Stiles College. Hailing from Hong Kong, he is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on Chinese politics and Hong Kong. Contact him at