Sunday, July 08, 2007

On the Tenth Anniversary of Hong Kong's Retrocession

On the Tenth Anniversary of Hong Kong's Retrocession
Bevin Chu
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?

Southampton, England

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.

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

Asiaweek story
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


  1. Anonymous10:41 AM

    Yet, somehow the ROC's "claims" to Outer Mongolia are considered "legit". Please.

  2. Anonymous10:44 AM

    I find it hilarious and laughable that ROC supporters can continue to lament Western imperialism, but continue to justify territorial "claims" to Outer Mongolia and Outer Manchuria. Those lands were NEVER Chinese to begin with. Chinese imperialism is just as unacceptable as Western imperialism.

  3. Rebuttals to these "rebuttals" are too easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel. Anyone want to have a go before me?

  4. Anonymous3:36 PM

    " Outer Mongolia, outer Manchuria has been an integral part of China
    for centuries through their rule of China. Boundary of any Nation
    changed as the result of close integration though changes of rulers from different parts of a nation. The shape of China kept changing in the past as the result of close interaction through merges of neighboring regions. That is no difference in any other countries such as Russia, India and Europe. There is one major difference, every race in China are being treated equally without racism we see in the west
    where the indigenous races in N America , Australia were pushed out to the wild and discriminated in their own land.

    Since Hong kong was returned to China, against the gloom and doom
    prediction of HK future, she has make ever better progress not only
    economically but also re-integrate well with her motherland. Few
    Westerners wish to see HK do well under China and we Chinese has the
    last laugh.

    There has constant China bashing from biased China haters who simply
    do not want China to grow and do not wish her well. That has been
    going on for centuries. Despite that China with the new generation of Chinese will continue to make progress despite the China bashing. When things get tough China will get tougher and that in our blood but we should not waste time on those China bashers as time is too valuable that we should use it for the betterment of China"

  5. Anonymous11:17 PM

    Since when were Outer Mongolia and Outer Manchuria ever considered Chinese? They were part of the Manchu Empire yes. But they were never historically part of China. I find it extremely insulting when Mongolian dignitaries visit Taiwan and discover that ROC maps include their country! It is a blessing that Russia assisted Mongolia in its efforts to liberate itself from Han chauvinism.

  6. It's always good to let China demonizers put their historically ignorant assumptions in writing. That's why I approve comments such as these.


  7. Anonymous6:07 AM

    Historically ignorant? Puleeze. You're the one who needs to hit the history books and deal with the harsh (to you) reality of Outer Mongolia's and Outer Manchuria's independence. They were NEVER ruled by China. The Mongols and the Manchus did most of the ruling.

  8. As I said before,

    "It's always good to let China demonizers put their historically ignorant assumptions in writing. That's why I approve comments such as these."

    Nothing has changed.


  9. I invite all readers to research the history of China, specifically the Yuan and Qing dynasties. The facts will speak for themselves.


  10. Anonymous10:47 AM

    The PRC willingly and happily gave away Outer Manchuria to Russia. As recently as 2004, the Beijing government acknowledged Russia's sovereignty over Outer Manchuria. The PRC also accepted without hesitation the legitimacy of Mongolia's independence in 2004. Chiang Kai-shek was a fool not to recognize the PRC's new borders. He should have concentrated only on taking back land in China occupied by the Communists, not lands that clearly did not belong to China historically. The Chinese government should really let their citizens know about these border agreements. Reckless Chinese irredentism in Outer Manchuria and Mongolia could seriously hamper Sino-Russian relations.

  11. Governments habitually betray the citizens they are supposed to protect. So what else is new?

    A nation's land does not belong to its government. It belongs to its citizens. It is not the government's to give away.

    The real solution to national territorial disputes is for both nations involved in the dispute to remember that the land does not belong to either government, but to individuals.

    Until that consensus can be reached however, one must fall back on traditional definitions of territorial sovereignty. In which case, the record is clear to anyone who has eyes to see.


  12. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Outer Manchuria is rightfully China's. In 1858, Qing China was forced to cede the province to Russia. At that time, China was militarily weak and Russia threatened war if China did not comply. The absence of consideration and the fact that China was coerced into signing the "treaty" means that Russia has no legitimate claim on Outer Manchuria.

    Outer Manchuria is clearly Chinese territory. The fact that the Qing Dynasty is no longer in power is of no consequence. The government may have changed forms (Qing Dynasty, then ROC, and then PRC) but Chinese territory remains unchanged. Chinese sovereign territory is unaffected by changes in government. It remains constant.

    Russia has no business in Asia. Manchuria is for the Chinese/Manchus and NOT the Russians. The Manchus are now part of the Chinese national identity. Around 10 million live in China. Hans, Manchus and various other ethnic groups are all considered Chinese - just like how the Celts, Picts, and Saxons are all considered "British".

    China has every right to demand Outer Manchuria back. It is simply a matter of China taking back what belongs to China.

  13. Anonymous7:48 AM

    Outer Manchuria is lost to China for good. And that is a good thing. Han chauvinism would be a very ugly phenomenon in eastern Russia and the Kremlin will rightly thwart any attempts by Han chauvinists to take Outer Manchuria "back".

  14. When China demonizers sputter apoplectically about "Han Chauvinism," especially regarding China's territory, they truly do make asses out of themselves.

    If they bothered to study history, they would know that China's territory is immense not because of any alleged "Han Chauvinism," but because "Han China" so-called, was repeatedly conquered by northern invaders, including the Mongols and Manchus.

    The Mongols and Manchus deserve most of the credit for expanding "Han China's" territory.

    The Mongols and Manchus incorporated these areas into "Han China" when they overran it. When later they collapsed, their contributions to China's territory remained.

    The northern regions of Manchuria originally became part of China not because "Han Chauvinists" went north and conquered Manchuria, but because Manchus went south and conquered "Han China."

    Get your history straight before spouting your venom.

  15. Anonymous9:26 AM

    ah westerners love to point their (fat) fingers at china and talk about history. out of context, a fact here a fact there. what do they really know? our history older than all of theirs put together. who are you to tell us what you think belongs to where? it matters not, while you talk about facts, we make them. the world has much to learn from a re-awakened china. we are the oldest and the highest civilization. of course this is hard to accept for those who themselves became powerful not through wisedom, but through smuggeling opium and temporary imbalance of the industrial revolution.

  16. Anonymous12:32 PM

    I never ever demonized China at all. I said that the China has a right to have its territorial integrity respected by the international community. That means Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan are part of China. What I do not like is the double-standards China expects other countries to accept. The ROC should drop its territorial claims in other countries. It is not conducive to good neighborly relations.