The Politics of China–Hong Kong Relations

The Politics of China–Hong Kong Relations

Living with Distant Masters

Peter W. Preston

In 1997 the British state relinquished control of Hong Kong and at this moment an established prosperous community was faced with reordering its sense of itself and its links with the wider world around the authority of Beijing. This book seeks to uncover the political logic of the process. Four issues are pursued: the manner of embedding a new political settlement, the business of governing the territory, the issue of democracy and the likely future of the extant form-of-life.

Chapter 2: Hong Kong’s historical trajectory

Peter W. Preston

Subjects: asian studies, asian politics and policy, politics and public policy, asian politics


Hong Kong entered the modern world in the early eighteenth century – the territory was extracted by war from the Qing Empire; it provided a base for British traders; it provided a base for Chinese traders; two flows of inward migration settled the territory. It took the form of a colonial port city. Initially, a narrow elite made up of British colonial officials, expatriate traders and a small number of local business people ruled the colony. Participation in government was by invitation. The elite’s attention was turned to the business of commerce, with the masses of the people left to their own devices. Over time the make-up of the elite changed. Chinese businessmen, professionals and others became more influential amongst elite-level players. This local elite – now diverse – found ways of running Hong Kong whilst dealing with the concerns of London and the more immediate and varied pressures flowing from its Qing neighbours. A distinctive form of life took shape. After the Second World War the internal structure remained largely stable, relations with London benign, exchanges with Maoist China generally manageable. Over this period domestic reforms were made and not only did the territory prosper, it also began to create a distinct sense of itself – no longer a city of migrants and refugees, rather, it became the home to Hong Kong people. Today, after the 1997 transfer of power, commentators identify multiple problems both of domestic governance and in external relations with Beijing,; the one unsettled by popular discontent, the other clouded with uncertainty.

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