CultureExplainer

The history of Hong Kong, visualized

The ‘special status’ of this powerful global city is the result of two centuries of growth, turmoil, and change.

Illustration by Adolfo Arranz, National Geographic
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Hong Kong has been wracked by a recent series of protests in support of self-determination for its citizens. The 'special status' of the city is a result of its unusual political history.

Illustration by Adolfo Arranz, National Geographic
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Home to over seven million people, Hong Kong teems with life. For weeks, it has also roiled with pro-democracy protests as millions take to the streets to demand political self-determination and personal autonomy. They’re not the first: The history of Hong Kong is one of rapid growth, political turmoil, and continual demands for change. Here are 25 powerful moments from Hong Kong’s long history:

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Pre-1800s

The small island of Hong Kong is a backwater fishing community ruled by China. British merchants trade illegally smuggled opium from India for Chinese goods such as tea, silks and porcelain, setting the stage for a vicious trade dispute. Opium addiction becomes a serious problem for China. By 1839, China is home to 10 million opium smokers and up to 2 million addicts.

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September 1839-1842

China attempts to suppress Britain’s opium trade by destroying the smuggled opium and punishing traffickers. In response, Britain issues an ultimatum. The First Opium War that follows leaves 520 British casualties and up to 20,000 Chinese casualties. It is a decisive loss for China.

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January 1, 1842

The Treaty of Nanjing is signed by China and Britain, ceding the island of Hong Kong to Britain permanently. It is the first of three “unequal treaties” China signs with Britain. Over the next 56 years, it will lose control over all three main regions of Hong Kong.

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1856-1860

The Second Opium War between the United Kingdom, the French Empire, and China takes place. It concludes with the Convention of Peking, which cedes the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutters Island to Britain. At the end of the war, British and French troops lay waste to Beijing’s Summer Palaces. Up to 30,000 Chinese are killed or wounded; there are just 2,900 Western casualties.

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1898

Britain is awarded a rent-free, 99-year lease on the New Territories. Massive waves of immigrants from mainland China begin to arrive in Hong Kong. So do international trade and Western-style schools, banks and businesses. Hong Kong becomes a regional trade center.

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1937

As Japanese forces close in on Hong Kong after the start of the Sino-Japanese War, thousands of people from mainland China flee to the city. Japanese bombs drop in Hong Kong territory. However, Hong Kong is protected from out-and-out war by its status as a British colony.

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1941-1945

Japan invades and occupies Hong Kong. During occupation, Hong Kong’s population shrinks from 1.6 million to 600,000.

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1946

Britain resumes control over the civil government.

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1949

On the mainland, the Chinese Revolution is won by the Communists under leader Mao Zedong. The civil war drives hundreds of thousands to flee to Hong Kong, leading to the creation of large squatter settlements. Up to 100,000 people arrive each month, bringing a dizzying array of dialects, languages, and traditions with them. Hong Kong’s population surges from 600,000 in 1945 to 2.5 million in 1956. 

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1950s

Hong Kong’s economy takes off as a manufacturing hub and the standard of living climbs. But unrest grows due to income inequality and poor working conditions among the surging population.

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1960s

This tumultuous decade sees riots, civil unrest, and social anxiety, coupled with natural disasters like droughts and typhoons. As a result, the government undertakes ambitious social reforms, tackling official corruption and increasing educational opportunities. The unrest leads to a sense of social cohesion in an increasingly multicultural society.

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1970s

Hong Kong emerges as an “Asian Tiger”- an international financial center. Mao Zedong is replaced by the more moderate Deng Xiaoping, who implements a policy of “opening and reform.”

Britain, looking ahead to the end of its 99-year lease on the New Territories, approaches Deng about continuing its administration. Deng keeps the option of resuming sovereignty open, but admits the city has a “special status.” Behind the scenes, the UK starts planning its exit.

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1984

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and China’s Premier Zhao Ziyang sign the Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong. It declares that China will resume control of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

China pledges to grant Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” and that Hong Kong would move toward direct elections by 2007. Officials begin to draft a mini constitution for the city in a reflection of China’s “one state, two systems” policy. Hong Kong citizens experience a growing sense of uncertainty—and wonder why they weren’t included in the negotiations.

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1989

In Hong Kong, more than 1 million people protest the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The massacre fuels worries about how China will govern in Hong Kong, and anti-Communist sentiments grow.

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1992

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, announces democratic reforms for the 1994 local and 1995 legislative elections without consulting China. Beijing officials are furious, and negotiations fall apart. Hong Kong moves forward with the reforms, but China plans to dismantle them once it takes the city back.

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July 1, 1997

Hong Kong officially reverts to Chinese rule after more than 150 years of British control. A Shanghai-born businessman named Tung Chee-hwa is chosen to rule the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He is criticized for his handling of the Asian financial crisis and his obedience to Beijing.

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May 1998

The first elections are held, producing record turnout despite torrential rains. It is a landslide for pro-democracy candidates, who win more than 65 percent of the vote. But because of the city’s new election structure under Chinese rule, pro-democracy candidates don’t gain a majority in the legislature.

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Spring 2003

China and Hong Kong are struck by the deadly SARS epidemic, a respiratory virus that infects 8,096 people worldwide and kills 774. Terrified Hong Kong residents avoid public places at the height of the epidemic, and the government is criticized for its slow response.

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July 2003

About half a million people march to protest an attempt to introduce Article 23, a national security “anti-subversion” law that critics feared would curtail free speech. The bill is soon withdrawn, but the proposed law faces international criticism and is seen as evidence of China’s desire to restrict freedoms in Hong Kong.

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April 2004

China requires that its approval must be obtained for any changes to Hong Kong election laws, effectively giving it veto power over any moves towards democracy. Trust in Beijing’s commitment to democracy in Hong Kong plummets, and half a million people engage in pro-democracy protests in July.

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July 2006

Tens of thousands of people march in a pro-democracy rally. The marches continue every July, providing an annual reminder of citizens’ demands for universal suffrage, freedom of speech protections and democratic rule.

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August 2014

The Chinese legislature rules out open elections in Hong Kong, saying that it will only allow candidates approved by Beijing to run for its top political position.

A rash of protests and acts of civil disobedience follow. Students strike, citizens participate in huge pro-democracy rallies, and demonstrators occupy the city center for weeks. The movement fails, and many of the leaders, who were students, are jailed. It galvanizes pro-democracy support in the city, and more candidates in favor of democratic rule run in the next election.

 

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February - March 2019

Hong Kong’s government announces plans for a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China for the first time. Critics claim the bill threatens Hong Kong’s independence and that extradition could be used to silence China’s critics. Millions of people march in the peaceful demonstrations that follow.

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June 12, 2019

A second reading of the extradition bill is postponed after violent protests break out, blocking roads and attempting to storm parliament. Police fight back with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets, injuring 80 people. Chinese and Hong Kong officials call the clashes a “riot.” Protesters demand they retract those claims. Demonstrators change tactics, conducting surprise protests at government buildings and in far-flung parts of the New Territories.

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August 2019

Demonstrations and battles between police and pro-democracy protesters break out throughout Hong Kong. Protesters take over the airport and face police at government buildings and in tourist and shopping districts. Hundreds are arrested and China threatens to crack down. Demonstrators make demands: Withdraw the extradition bill, conduct an inquiry into police brutality, stop characterizing the protests as “riots,” release those arrested, and provide more democratic freedoms. They haven’t gotten their demands yet—but the protests continue unabated.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the demands of the protesters.