Academic journal article Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

The Future of Hong Kong: Not What It Used to Be

Academic journal article Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

The Future of Hong Kong: Not What It Used to Be

Article excerpt

I know that the Chinese people are willing to go to war

with England over Hong Kong, even if the Chinese

Government is not.

--Lin Yu-tang(1)


Wrested by force or threat through "unequal treaties" and at the cost of the enduring hostility of the Chinese nation, Hong Kong as a British colony often seemed fragile and uncertain. Much of it was secured by a lease which would expire in 1997. Considerable efforts were therefore made at various times in Hong Kong and the Colonial Office to place the territory on a firmer footing, but from 1943 it seemed unlikely that even the status quo could long be defended in the post-war world. After 1949, the central issue was whether Hong Kong could survive at all as a British dependency on the periphery of Communist China. This Article, based on documents available up to the end of 1996 in the Public Record Office in London.(2) seeks to present British attitudes towards retention of its Far Eastern colony.


A. British Acquisition of Hong Kong

The island of Hong Kong, following the Opium War, was ceded to the British Crown by the Treaty of Nanjing 1842. A small strip of territory on the opposite mainland, known as Kowloon, and Stonecutters Island were ceded in 1860. Cession was then understood in international law to mean an absolute transfer of sovereignty over the territory in perpetuity. Legal title was therefore safe, at least until China was strong enough to demand retrocession. The last acquisition, however, of the New Territories, comprising rural hinterland and sea boundaries enclosing the ceded portions, was achieved through a ninety-nine year lease in 1898. Britain asserted sovereignty over the leasehold, though recognizing the obligation to restore it to China in 1997. In due course, it became clear that the ceded colony could not exist as a functioning territorial unit without the leased addition, and the primary objective in the first part of this century was to convert the lease into a formal cession.

B. Proposals to Cede the New Territories

Governors of Hong Kong were the principal movers in advancing the cause of cession, and no opportunity which might arise in Sino-British relations was lost. As early as 1909, Sir Frederick Lugard suggested cession as a condition for the return of Weihaiwei, a Chinese territory also leased in 1898 but for an uncertain term. The Colonial Office promised to give careful consideration to the proposal when the time came.(3) Weihaiwei was not restored until 1930, and in the meantime Sir Cecil Clementi revived Lugard's proposal. A Colonial Office clerk minuted, "The outlook is an anxious one for Hong Kong but our best chance of saving the New Territories is to lie doggo and assume that the lease will run its normal course (another 70 years)."(4) In 1929, the Foreign Office sought the views of Sir Miles Lampson, British Minister in Beijing, on whether the Chinese government would accept a package of Weihaiwei, money, and certain disputed tracts of land on the Burmese border in return for cession of the New Territories. Lampson scorned the idea. "For us to seek now to perpetuate or extend any existing alienation would be not only to invite a rebellion but to concentrate active attention on issues far better left dormant."(5) The Colonial Office nevertheless wanted the question constantly in mind in case a "less unfavourable" opportunity should occur in the future.(6) It was pressed again in 1930 in relation to what appeared to be agreement on customs, but Lampson remained firmly opposed. It was raised again a year later with equal lack of favour, by Sir William Peel and by Sir Geoffry Northcote in 1938, this time in return for a substantial loan to China.(7) The time, however, was never ripe, and no approach to the Chinese government was ever made.

Opinion in the Foreign Office had in any event turned against such schemes, and once Britain was embroiled in World War II the issue was not cession of the New Territories but whether the entire colony should and could be preserved. …

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