On the Tenth Anniversary of Hong Kong's Retrocession
July 8, 2007
Ten years ago, on July 1, 1997, Hong Kong, a region extorted from China at gunpoint by the relentlessly expansionist British Empire was finally returned to China.
Hong Kong, China
Unequal Treaty of Nanking ceding Hong Kong to the British, signed at gunpoint aboard the HMS Cornwallis in 1842
When I say Hong Kong was returned to China, I mean it was returned to the Chinese nation, not to any particular political authority.
Some western colonialists and imperialists lament that "Hong Kong was handed over to the Butchers of Beijing."
Suppose Qing dynasty China had sailed halfway around the globe to Britain in 1842, forced the British to buy opium from China, then annexed the southern England seaport of Southampton, and turned it into a Chinese colony?
Titanic Leaving Southampton Dockside Wednesday April 10, 1912
Now suppose that a century and a half later China returned Southampton to Britain? Would these same western colonialists and imperialists lament that "Southampton was handed over to Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher?"
Land annexed by a foreign aggressor must be returned to the nation from which it was seized. The issue is which nation owns the land, not which political authority is in power.
Which political authority is in power in China at the moment of return is a separate issue, and is no excuse not to return stolen real estate.
Besides, as the following June 1997 Asiaweek article reveals, Hong Kong was hardly ruled as benevolently as western colonialists and imperialists would have the world believe.
See: When Eccentrics Ruled the Roost
When Eccentrics Ruled the Roost
Far away from London under the dazzling tropical sun, Hong Kong's first governors turned to treachery, warmongering and not a little backbiting
By Arthur Hacker
Asiaweek: When Eccentrics Ruled the Roost
THERE IS A POPULAR two-dimensional image of the British colonial in the early days of Hong Kong: he is depicted as a crimson-faced, gin-swilling planter or army colonel with a gigantic white mustache who waves a fly whisk and brays "boy" in a loud, plummy voice. Actually, this sort of creature was a rarity in Hong Kong -- though Sir Henry Pottinger, the Colony's first Governor (1843-1844) and previous Administrator (1841-1843), had some of the qualifications. He was a heavy drinker, had once been a colonel in the 5th Bombay Native Infantry and sported an impressive mustache.
That, however, is where his resemblance to the Colonel Blimp stereotype ended. Pottinger spoke with a soft Irish brogue and as a teenager had been a remarkably daring spy. His brush with espionage began in 1810, after London caught wind of a plan by France and Russia to form an alliance to invade British India through Persia. Disguised first as a Tartar horse dealer and later as a holy man, young Pottinger successfully blarneyed his way through Sind and Baluchistan, which were not a part of British-held India at the time. Pottinger's mission was a great success, although in the end the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, gave up the idea of invading India and attacked Russia instead.
On becoming Governor of the new colony, Pottinger was obliged by the Charter of Hong Kong of 1843 to establish two civilian bodies, the Executive and Legislative Councils. Pottinger had a military background and did not take kindly to being advised by civilians. He was able to frustrate the concept of a two-council administration by a simple device: he appointed the same people to both bodies.
The councils were small and -- happily for Pottinger --never met due to the lack of a quorum. One member, John Morrison, a brilliant young Chinese linguist, died within a few days of his appointment. Another councilor, the colorless former Administrator, Alexander Johnston, went on a very long sick leave. As Pottinger was a major-general, and the sole remaining councilor, the redoubtable William Caine, only a humble major, the Governor was able to do exactly what he wanted, often with disastrous results.
Pottinger's cavalier approach to government caused enormous problems. All treaties are unequal, but some treaties are more unequal than others. The Commercial Treaty of the Bogue in 1843 was unique because the English and the Chinese versions were different. The Chinese Commissioner, Keying (Qiying), was alleged to have surreptitiously inserted a number of trade regulations into the Chinese text that were not in the agreed English version. This created chaos in shipping and trade, but Pottinger, although embarrassed at being misled, did not seem to harbor any resentment toward Keying over the incident. He treated it as a part of the political game and they occasionally got drunk together. Pottinger even named his son after the Chinese Commissioner.
Gutzlaff tried to save the souls of those he was poisoning
Keying inserted his secret clauses after the final draft had been approved, but the blame for the incident fell rather unfairly on the shoulders of the interpreter, Robert Thom, who with Morrison had prepared the original document. There was a critical shortage of interpreters at that time because it was a capital offense in China for a Chinese to teach a foreigner the language. Pottinger wanted Thom as his Chinese Secretary. But when Thom was sent to the new northern Treaty Port of Ningpo, Pottinger had to make do with the Rev. Karl Gutzlaff.
A former Pomeranian saddle maker, Gutzlaff arrived in the Portuguese enclave of Macau in 1831. He was a missionary and printed thousands of religious tracts, which he gave to his converts to distribute. These venal "rice-Christians" sold them back to the printer, who resold them to Gutzlaff. This tended to frustrate his hopeless grand design "to evangelize en masse a great nation." Early in his career he had acted as an interpreter on an opium ship owned by Jardine, Matheson & Co., and helped to smuggle the drug into China. With one hand Gutzlaff sold illegal opium and with the other he handed out religious tracts designed to save the souls of the Chinese he was poisoning. When Gutzlaff died he was discovered to be extremely rich.
Incidentally, the opium trade was not confined to the British. The leading American opium firm was Russell & Co. Its taipan was an old sea captain named Warren Delano. He was at one time the American vice-consul in Canton (Guangzhou) and was a staunch Republican. His political philosophy is best summed up by his somewhat bigoted statement, "I will not say that all Democrats are horse thieves, but it does seem that all horse thieves are Democrats." He was rather upset when his daughter married a Democrat, James Roosevelt. Her son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became the 32nd U.S. president. He was also a Democrat.
-- Arthur Hacker, a longtime resident of Hong Kong, is a historian and artist