HONG KONG (香港, xiāng gǎng) – more fully known as the Hong Kong SAR – wears a lot of hats: it remains one of the world’s largest financial hubs; its modern face hides a surprisingly traditional culture; and it’s also an experiment in governance with which the mainland authorities hope to win over a recalcitrant Taiwan. While Hong Kong’s famous addiction to money and brand names tends to mask the fact that most people work long hours and live in tiny apartments, the city is bursting with energy and the population of seven million is sophisticated and well informed compared to their mainland cousins, the result of a relatively free press. The urban panorama of skyscrapered Hong Kong Island, seen across the harbour from Kowloon, is stunning, and you’ll find a surprisingly undeveloped countryside within easy commuter range of the hectic centre and its perennial, massive engineering projects.
Hong Kong comprises 1100 square kilometres of the south China coastline and a number of islands east of the Pearl River Delta. The principal urban area is spread along the north shore of Hong Kong Island, which offers traces of the old colony – from English place names to anachronistic double-decker trams trundling along the shore – and also superb modern cityscapes of towering buildings teetering up impossible slopes, along with whole districts dedicated to selling Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbs. The south of the island offers several decent beaches, a huge amusement park, and even hiking opportunities.
Immediately north across Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island, the Kowloon Peninsula – and especially its tip, Tsim Sha Tsui – is Hong Kong’s principal tourist trap, boasting a glut of accommodation, shops and markets offering an incredible variety of goods. North of Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon merges with the New Territories, a varied area of New Towns and older villages, secluded beaches and undeveloped country parks. In addition, the Outlying Islands – particularly Lamma and Lantau – are worth a visit for their seafood restaurants and relatively laidback pace of life.
While the Chinese justifiably argue that Hong Kong was always Chinese territory, its development only began with the arrival of the British in 1842, following the first Opium War. Further gunboat diplomacy eighteen years later secured Britain the Kowloon Peninsula too, and in 1898 Britain obtained a 99-year lease on an additional one thousand square kilometres of land north of Kowloon, the New Territories. Up until World War II, the territory prospered as frequent turmoil in mainland China drove money and refugees south into the apparently safe confines of the British colony. This confidence proved misplaced in 1941 when Japanese forces seized Hong Kong along with the rest of eastern China, though after Japan’s defeat in 1945, Britain swiftly reclaimed the colony. As the mainland fell to the Communists in 1949, a new wave of refugees swelled Hong Kong’s population threefold to 2.5 million, causing a housing crisis that set in motion themes still current in the SAR: land reclamation, the need for efficient infrastructure, and a tendency to save space by building upwards.
Approaching the handover
In the last twenty years of British rule, the spectre of 1997, when Britain’s lease on the New Territories expired, loomed large. Negotiations on the future of the colony led in 1984 to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, paving the way for Britain to hand back sovereignty of the territory in return for Hong Kong maintaining its capitalist system for fifty years. However, fears grew that repression and the erosion of freedoms would follow the handover. The constitutional framework provided by the Basic Law of 1988, in theory, answered some of those fears, illustrating how the “One Country, Two Systems” policy would work. But the following year’s crackdown in Tian’anmen Square only seemed to confirm the most pessimistic views of what might happen following the handover, especially to members of Hong Kong’s embryonic democracy movement. When Chris Patten arrived in 1992 to become the last governor, he cynically broadened the voting franchise for the Legislative Council (Legco) from around 200,000 to some 2.7 million people, infuriating Beijing and ensuring that the road to the handover would be a rough ride.
After the histrionics of the build-up, however, the handover was an anticlimax. The British sailed away, Beijing carried out its threat to reduce the enfranchised population, and Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping billionaire, became the first chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR. But then came the Asian financial crisis, recession and soaring unemployment, avian flu outbreaks and finally SARS, a baffling virus that killed 299 people. Public dissatisfaction with Tung coalesced every June 4 (the anniversary of the Tian’anmen Square crackdown), when about half a million people turned out to demonstrate against him – and, by extension, Beijing’s hold over Hong Kong.
This was too much for the powers in Beijing, who wanted Hong Kong to showcase the “One Country, Two Systems” approach to Taiwan – which, now that former colonial enclaves have been reclaimed, remains the last hurdle to Chinese territory being reunited under one government. Tung was sacked in March 2005, and his successors – career civil servant Donald Tsang, and the current incumbent, Leung Chun-ying – have proved more in line with Beijing’s wishes, pliant bureaucrats who ignore public concerns about welfare and urban redevelopment, while favouring the demolition of Hong Kong’s dwindling antique heritage to make way for ill-planned roads and ever-larger shopping malls.
Meanwhile, local politics seem more divided than ever along pro-Beijing and pro-democracy lines, with the latter continually pushing for universal suffrage. Democratic factions have, in fact, polled over a third of the vote since the handover (in 2008 they won 23 of the 30 electable seats), meaning that they hold a power of veto over bills passed through Legco. But how all parties involved will pull together in the face of China’s rising power remains to be seen.