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Britain in Hong Kong

Updated on December 28, 2017
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

The younger generations are shocked that Britain once ruled Hong Kong. The generations above that just remember Britain's exit and the panic that set in the people of Hong Kong and the world at large. Those older find it hard to fathom Hong Kong under any but British rule. The question then arises as to how it all started. Why was Britain in charge of something on the extreme other side of the world?

The initial British presence in Hong Kong was completely military. It did not begin as a way to influence the world's economy or establish an exotic resort. It involved the economy of Britain, but was a military move. The excessive Chinese imports the British people demanded created a trade deficit that Britain tried to resolve with...opium. This only led to a military confrontation. As the Opium War escalated, Britain got a foothold on Hong Kong in 1841. (1) They would remain for many decades.

Though the military presence would continue under British rule, the base purpose for colonization was not to be a buffer though it did serve that purpose. Britain looked to it for the economic benefits.


Purpose of Presence

Britain was the nation that never had the sun set on itself. The nation wanted to be the biggest and greatest. The British people wanted to be seen as the world conquering empire to bring civilization to every culture. It got there for a spell. During that time, its reach spanned the globe. Asia was a big attraction for the large Empire.

Think of the furthest place from where you live. It is not easily accessible. It is almost forbidden only because it is not within reach. You want what it has. You become obsessesd with it. Such was Europe in regard to the Far East.

Asia had many products that were desired in Europe. There were silks, spices, and so much more that the Europeans craved from the East. In fact, Asia had become a major fad in Europe.


Trade Between China and Great Britain

Prior to the Opium War, Britain did a huge amount of trading with China. The British people craved the exotic products from the East. That was not to end after the war. Quite the opposite happened. It increased. The desire to make Hong Kong something more than a military stronghold came from a bigger desire to make Hong Kong a “base for their dealings with the Chinese mainland.” (2) Britain now had a different kind of interest in the area, and since they were already there...

Hong Kong gave Britain much more possibilities in economic growth. It opened many new channels for businessmen. Removing the military personnel, most residents that called Hong Kong home saw the island as a base of operations. Merchants found the perfect foothold to ensure growth and prosperity. (3)


From There

Britain's Hong Kong became a strong presence in the world. When it took control of the area in the mid 1800s, there was a written agreement with China on how long that control would be. It was extended once to end in 1997. It was handed over with fanfare and no tension. In fact, it turned out smoother than anyone would have guessed. China agreed to keep the basics of Hong Kong life intact so it could continue to be the main site of Asian business.


Hong Kong was taken for military and strategic reasons. It was kept as a military buffer and a great ‘home’ for anyone British traveling. It grew due to economic growth. It became a merchant’s dream. The reasons for British colonization of Hong Kong could never be explained in one word or for one reason. There were a myriad of reasons with the strongest being that of commerce. The argument that “it was a colonial state captured by business interests” seems to be highly appropriate. (4)


(1) “Hong Kong History,” California State University, Long Beach, accessed August 30, 2012,

(2) Cindy Yik-yi Chu, ed., Foreign Communities in Hong Kong, 1840s-1950s (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), accessed August 29, 2012, NetLibrary e-book.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Tak-Wing Ngo, ed., Hong Kong’s History: State and society under colonial rule (Routledge, 1999), accessed August 30, 2012, NetLibrary e-book.


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