Hong Kong (literally ‘fragrant harbor’) has a rich history of human activity dating back more than 10,000 years according to some archaeological estimates. Following its incorporation into the Chinese Empire during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC), Hong Kong’s population began to grow more rapidly and some evidence suggests that the region was a hub for salt production during the period. The first population boom in Hong Kong resulted from the Mongol invasion of China and the associated wars and famines which saw a flood of refugees enter the territories.
During the Han and Ming Dynasties (1368 – 1644) Hong Kong became a center for pearl hunting, salt trading and fishing. The development of these industries helped develop the region into a trading center and set the stage for the development of the Hong Kong economy in the centuries that followed.
The Colonial Era
During the 19th century a significant amount of trade developed between the British Empire and China which created a British dependance on Chinese tea and a large trade imbalance. The British began importing large amounts of opium into Hong Kong (and the mainland) prompting a series of events that led to the Opium Wars that ultimately resulted in the Treaty of Nanjing (among others) and the cession of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom.
Following the conclusion of the territorial settlements, Hong Kong began to develop on a divergent path from mainland China. Commerce and industry flourished under British rule with the large scale development of infrastructure and banking. Fundamental in the evolution of Hong Kong was the introduction of Western-style education which cemented English as one of the main languages of the region. The population continued rising steadily to an estimated 725,000 in 1925.
Despite valiant efforts by local defense forces, Canadian, British, and Indian troops, Hong Kong was occupied by invading Japanese forces in Late 1941. British governor Mark Aitchison Young surrendered to the Japanese in person on what has become known as Black Christmas. The days that followed saw the execution of dissidents and the rape of an estimated 10,000 women by the Japanese army. The subsequent 3 years and 8 months saw the economy come to a halt, and much of the population reduced to starvation rations. The Second Battle of Hong Kong liberated the city but the population had been reduced to an estimated 600,000 people from a pre-war total of 1.6 million.
Modern Hong Kong
Following the end of the Second World War civil war erupted in China sweeping the communists to power. Many thought that Hong Kong would be overrun as a result, however Hong Kong’s economic importance was recognized by Beijing and it remained under British rule. The war on the mainland brought a flood of refugees to Hong Kong bringing with them the cheap labor and capital necessary to fuel further rapid economic development. Local and foreign businesses developed large textile and financial industries and though there was unrest and riots during the 1950s and 60s, Hong Kong survived.
Starting in the late 1960s, Hong Kong’s government began enacting a series of social and labor reforms aimed at addressing the discontent expressed by the population. Public housing, education, healthcare, and recreation all saw improvements and the city continued to develop. By 1990, Hong Kong was the second richest region in Asia rivaled only by Japan in terms of GDP.
In 1997 Hong Kong was formally returned to the Chinese government. Though Britain was only legally required to return the New Territories and not Hong Kong or Kowloon, more than half of the city’s population lived in the New Territories making division of the city all but impossible. The return to Chinese rule saw the creation of a ‘Special Administrative Region’ (SAR) for Hong Kong and the retention of a great deal of autonomy for the city out side of foreign affairs and defense. And while the lead up to the hand over saw the emigration of 10s of thousands of concerned Hong Kong residents to other British Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Australia as well as the US, the actual transition was relatively smooth and one would be hard pressed to see the difference between Hong Kong today and the city of 1996.
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