Hong Kong is not a country unto itself, but a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, in which the territory is supposed to have autonomy in terms of political governance and how it runs its economy.
In the 19th century, Hong Kong was little more than a fishing village, but its strategic location and harbor attracted traders from the British Empire, and in 1821, the British began using it as a base for ships carrying opium. In 1842, the Chinese ceded Hong Kong Island to the British after the First Opium War (1839-1842), and so Hong Kong became a British colony. After the Second Opium War (1856-1860), China ceded additional territory, namely the Kowloon Peninsula, to the British. Almost forty years later, China and Britain signed the Convention of 1898, leasing Hong Kong to the British Empire for a period of 99 years. By the end of the century, the territory’s population had ballooned to more than 300,000 people.
During World War II, Imperial Japanese forces occupied Hong Kong, and its population was more than halved from 1.6 million in 1941 to just 650,000 by the time the Japanese surrendered in 1945. After WWII ended, however, people began streaming back into Hong Kong, and the territory began to revive its economy. But it was not until the 1970s that the territory’s economy began to sizzle, eventually making it one of the so-called Asian Tiger economies. In 1997, in accordance with the Convention of 1898, the UK returned Hong Kong to Chinese control, but with special conditions meant to preserve the territory’s free market economy and political system. Hence, Hong Kong became what is now known as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Current Governmental Structure
Hong Kong’s current constitutional framework is governed under the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Under this law, the territory is supposed to be governed by the concept of “one country, two systems,” in which it maintains political and economic autonomy, and the central Chinese government has jurisdiction only on matters related to foreign policy and defense. There is a Chief Executive, who, according to the Basic Law, was to have been elected directly by Hong Kong’s voters, but this provision has not been implemented. Instead, an Election Committee composed of residents of the territory from various professions, trades, and other interest groups chooses the Chief Executive. Legislative functions are carried out by the Legislative Council, which has seventy members. Thirty-five of these members are elected by Hong Kong’s general voting public, while the other 35 are elected by constituencies representing different groups of the territory’s society, similar to the Election Committee. The courts are still governed under laws from the United Kingdom. Hong Kong also maintains its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar.
Hong Kong has seen an unprecedented amount of political unrest recently. It began in 2019, when the government, with support from China’s central government in Beijing, tried to pass a law that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. Fearing that this new law would be used to suppress political descent, many Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest. These protests, some of which turned violent, adversely affected the territory’s economy. The proposed law was finally shelved in October 2019, but the protests persisted. In 2020, the Chinese government proposed a new security law that critics believe is meant to criminalize descent in the territory. China’s recent efforts to extend its authority over Hong Kong, in deference to the concept of “one country, two systems” has drawn condemnation by both residents of the territory as well as some voices in the international community.