A Guide to the Hong Kong Handover

The Hong Kong Handover Now and Then

Hong Kong flag and Chinese flag

British reign in Hong Kong came down amidst a flutter of Union Jacks and Royal family pageantry during the 1997 handover. Britain had won the island from imperial China during the opium wars in 1839 and would later add the New Territories on a 100-year long lease. It was this lease that led to the Hong Kong handover.  

Hong Kong Handover and the Basic Law

While Britain owned Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, the lease on the New Territories expired in 1997 and Britain felt it had little option but to return the whole of Hong Kong to China. While pressure from Beijing and the international community pressured London to return to Hong Kong, the position in Hong Kong itself was more balanced. Concern about the world's most successful capitalist city being turned over to the world's biggest communist country was common.  

Much of the debate about the Hong Kong handover revolved around civil liberties, with worries that China would implement authoritarian control once the country as returned. To try and ease these fears the British negotiated with the Chinese a mini-constitution for Hong Kong; the Basic Law. This enshrined the right for Hong Kong to enjoy a capitalist way of life for at least the next fifty years and put protections into protecting freedom of speech, right to protest and other decidedly democratic ideas.

Amidst all this negotiating between London and Beijing, nobody really bothered to ask Hong Kongers. Almost completely excluded from the handover discussions, nothing sums up Hong Kong's situation better than the handover event itself. Set amidst pouring rain, British governors and princes collected flags, while Chinese chairmen and mandarins hoisted their own. Hong Kong watched. 

Is Hong Kong a Democracy?

No. Thanks to the British it never was - and the Chinese would like to keep it that way. For most of its life, Hong Kong was a colony, ruled by a governor dispatched by the British Houses of Parliament. As the Hong Kong handover approached, the local population demanded more control over their own affairs. In response, the British introduced a semi-parliament and the post of chief executive to replace the governor. But the city has never had universal suffrage and under China, it seems unlikely it ever will - the Chief Executive is elected by industry leaders. 

How Has Hong Kong Changed Since the Handover?

One of the most popular questions about the Hong Kong handover is what has exactly changed in Hong Kong since the Chinese took sovereignty. From the Queen's picture being taken down, to a change in color on the post boxes, Hong Kong did have a British spring clean after the handover. But plenty of symbols remain, Queen Victoria still sits in Victoria Park and Queen Elizabeth's portrait lingers on the coins. 

There is also plenty of British architecture on show, from the former governor's residence to the Anglican St John's Cathedral. Take our tour of British Hong Kong to find the best. 

By and large, the city has remained much the same. Making money still rules. But Beijing is increasingly confident and how the city is governed has been thrown back into the spotlight by the umbrella revolution, where millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets to demand democracy. 

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