The Sino-British Confrontation over Hong Kong

Date Published:

Jan 1, 1994


Hong Kong, one of the most modern cities in the world, is one of its greatest anachronisms. It is the last corner of Asia where Europeans rule, a rock–pool left, brilliant, vital and teeming, by the historic ebb tide which saw the age of European dominance over Asia ending in this century's second half. The Germans, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese, and the British, whose domains in Asia were once greatest of them all, withdrew or were forcefully evicted. But Britain preserved its power undiminished over the tiny but populous patch of China named Hong Kong, and thus the reversion of Hong Kong to China in 1997 will close an epilogue to the age of Europe's Asian dominance.

Through the first half of the century Britain gave almost no thought to the 1997 expiry of the lease which legitimizes its rule over Hong Kong. Then followed a period of false hope that Hong Kong could somehow be retained, lease or no lease. After coming to accept that the return of Hong Kong to China was ineluctable, Britain succeeded in negotiating with Beijing what promised to be a cooperative and cordial transfer of power. How that agreement was achieved and how the achievement came to be undone is the subject of this paper.


Working Paper 94–08, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University, 1994.