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Understanding the controversy over whether Hong Kong was a “colony” from historical and legal perspectives (Translated version)

      A correct understanding of the role and status of Hong Kong in history lays a foundation of knowledge essential for in-depth studies of many subjects, especially Chinese History and Citizenship and Social Development. During a recent discussion about the subject of Citizenship and Social Development in the Panel on Education of the Legislative Council, there were comments reiterating that Hong Kong was never a “colony”. Realising the concerns shared by the media and members of the public over this proposition, the Education Bureau (EDB) would like to take this opportunity to explain to the public the stance of the Bureau and set the record straight.

 

      Based on the relevant historical documents and archaeological finds, it is an indisputable fact that Hong Kong has been part of China’s territory since ancient times. The origin of the dispute lies in three unequal treaties that were imposed on China by the British government after the Opium War in the 19th century, namely the Treaty of Nanking (1842), the Beijing Convention (1860), and the Convention between Great Britain and China Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory (1898), which resulted in the British forcible occupation and lease of and her 150-year-long rule over Hong Kong. Despite the above-mentioned historical facts, it does not mean that the British forcible occupation and lease of and “colonial rule” over Hong Kong should be regarded as legitimate.

 

      Most of the Hong Kong students living in this city are Chinese citizens, as well as global citizens. Therefore, it is necessary for them to understand Chinese history from the perspective of Chinese nationals, instead of simply adopting a historical perspective that is put forward by some foreigners who interpreted the history of the Opium War and the occupation of Hong Kong with no regard to historical facts. A correct interpretation of history must be based on historical facts while making reference to different perspectives. The above-mentioned three unequal treaties, which were related to the status of Hong Kong, should not be recognised as lawful according to international law as they were imposed on China through military aggression. Moreover, the three unequal treaties were never recognised as valid by any Chinese government after the Revolution of 1911.

 

      From the 1970s onwards, several resolutions and proclamations of the United Nations (UN) have clearly informed the fact that Hong Kong was not a “colony”:

 

  1. In March 1972, the permanent representative of the People’s Republic of China wrote to the UN “Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” (Special Committee on Decolonization) and stated that “the questions of Hong Kong and Macau belong to the category of questions resulting from the series of unequal treaties left over by history, treaties which the imperialists imposed on China. Hong Kong and Macau are part of Chinese territory occupied by the British and Portuguese authorities. The settlement of the questions of Hong Kong and Macau is entirely within China’s sovereign right and does not at all fall under the ordinary category of ‘colonial Territories’”. Thus, Hong Kong and Macau should not be included in the list of colonial Territories covered by the Declaration.

 

  1. In June 1972, the Special Committee on Decolonization adopted a resolution recommending to the UN General Assembly that Hong Kong and Macau should be removed from the list of colonial Territories to which the Declaration was applicable.

 

  1. In November 1972, the 27th session of the UN General Assembly adopted the above-mentioned resolution by a vote of 99 in favour to 5 against, thereby removing Hong Kong and Macau from the list of colonial Territories covered by the Declaration, while recognising China’s stance and request over the questions of Hong Kong and Macau.

 

      Making it clear that Hong Kong has never been a “British colony” does not mean the denial of the history of the British occupation of Hong Kong, but serves to emphasise that it is inappropriate to use the term “colony” to describe the status of Hong Kong. We must develop a correct understanding among students that, as a matter of fact, China has all along held the sovereignty of Hong Kong. Though the British had implemented “colonial rule” over Hong Kong since 1842, they did not hold the sovereignty of Hong Kong. Therefore, Britain did not have the right to allow Hong Kong to become self-governing or independent. The Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong (1984) confirmed that China resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong with effect from 1 July 1997, while the Basic Law, which was adopted subsequently, states clearly that Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China. On 1st July 1997, China officially resumed “the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong”, but not “recovered the sovereignty of Hong Kong”. The Hong Kong Handover Ceremony marked a “transfer of government”, but not “transfer of sovereignty”. Thus, although Britain forcibly occupied and leased Hong Kong region, and implemented “colonial rule” for over 150 years, it did not alter the fact that China has all along held the sovereignty of Hong Kong.

 

      To develop in students, from an early age, a correct understanding of the historical facts of Hong Kong is a long journey of arduous work, which requires the concerted effort and shared commitment of all sectors of our society. The EDB attaches great importance to developing students’ accurate understanding of the essential facts about our own country’s history, and respect for historical facts. We hope that they can gain a correct understanding of national and world history, as well as their interrelationship, through exploring the evolution of human civilisations. In doing so, it is hoped that we can cultivate in students a sense of national identity, belonging and national pride, and a love for our country, city and family, while equipping them with a global perspective and a holistic outlook to serve the country and society.
 
August 2, 2022 (Tuesday)