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Hong Kong handover: timeline


1842: Hong Kong was ceded “in perpetuity” – for good – to Britain after China lost the first opium war. This is how the Manchester Guardian told its readers the news.

Manchester Guardian, 23 November, 1842

1860: Peace was short lived though. A second opium war, and another defeat for China, saw the British take the Kowloon peninsula.

1898: With China’s power waning, Britain claimed the “new territories” around Hong Kong on a 99 year lease.

1941: Japan occupied Hong Kong, but British rule resumed after the war.

1948: China faced more upheaval following the communist revolution. At the same time Hong Kong grew to become a financial honeypot, attracting trade and foreign exchange.

1967: Growing resentment by a communist minority led to violence in Hong Kong, leading the Observer to ask if it was time to give the colony back.

The Observer, 16 July 1967.
The Observer, 16 July 1967.

1979: Hong Kong’s London-appointed Governor Murray MacLehose began to explore the “1997 question” on a historic trip to Beijing that March. He met with China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, who told MacLehose Hong Kong would be recovered. But Deng also said Beijing would allow capitalist system to continue in the territory.

1982: China broke its official silence, telling the people of Hong Kong to help bring about “an early reunification of the Chinese nation”.

1982, Sept: The growing unease in the region prompted Margaret Thatcher to agree to talks. But Beijing insisted that ownership of Hong Kong was non-negotiable, demanding its return when the UK’s 99-year lease on the new territories ended.

Accused of being unreasonable, China reminded critics that no nation liked losing territory, giving the Falklands conflict as an example.

The Guardian, 25 September 1982.
The Guardian, 25 September 1982.

1984: After lengthy negotiations, Margaret Thatcher hailed the signing of a joint declaration between Britain and China over Hong Kong, signaling the end of colonial rule. Both countries agreed that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula.

1989: The mood among Hong Kong’s elites remained downbeat. London was accused of “betrayal” in its Asian colony. During an April hearing organised by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Lydia Dunn, the territory’s most senior non-government politician, broke down in tears as she described what she called Britain’s “morally indefensible” refusal to grant rights of residence to the city’s more than 3 million British passport holders.

Guardian coverage of Lydia Dunn’s criticism of Britain’s refusal to grant rights of residence to Hong Kong’s 3 million British passport holders
Guardian coverage of Lydia Dunn’s criticism of Britain’s refusal to grant rights of residence to Hong Kong’s 3 million British passport holders Photograph: The Guardian

Following the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing pro-democracy groups called on the British to pull out of negotiations with China over Hong Kong. The British government decided to go ahead after it sought assurances from the Chinese.

1997: British rule in Hong Kong ended on 1 July 1997. A ceremony to mark the occasion in Hong Kong was attended by Prince Charles, Tony Blair and Chris Patten, its last governor. Before departing the territory, Patten said in an emotional speech to the people of Hong Kong: “Now Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. That is the promise and that is the unshakeable destiny.”

The Guardian, 1 July 1997.
The Guardian, 1 July 1997.



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