Imperial Reconstructions: How Great Powers Shaped Hong Kong’s Sovereignty
The 79-day Umbrella Movement broke out in Hong Kong two years ago after Beijing refused for the third time to fulfill its promise to implement democracy in accordance with the Hong Kong Basic Law, the territory’s constitutional document that is supposed to assure universal suffrage, as Article 45 states, “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.” Even though the resistance movement—the largest-scale on Chinese soil since the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989—eventually failed to achieve democracy, it continues to have large political implications. New discourses in Hong Kong have arisen since then, ranging from a return to British rule to outright independence. As opposed to merely achieving universal suffrage under Chinese rule, as had been the paramount goal of democracy leaders over the past three decades, Hong Kongers are beginning to take one step further to challenge the P.R.C.’s claim to Hong Kong’s sovereign rights, as well as the legitimacy of the existing constitution.
In light of these recent developments, I seek to reexamine the history of Hong Kong’s sovereignty by challenging the existing historiography. Orthodox pro-Chinese narratives have long suggested that “Hong Kong has always been part of China since ancient times,” and which had only been colonized as a result of western imperialism, thereby justifying the resumption of sovereignty. The pro-British perspective, on the other hand, neglects the history of Hong Kong prior to British arrival in 1841 and focuses chiefly on the contribution of British elites—colonial administrators, businessmen, and missionaries—in Hong Kong’s evolution from a “barren island” to a global city. The role of local Hong Kongers are, in both these accounts, often overlooked. I argue that they, as non-self-governing peoples, deserved the right to self-determination, but which was compromised by the international community as great powers contested with one another. Based on documents from the United Nations, I then trace how Hong Kong ended up being removed from the official list of non-self-governing territories, leading to its future determined only by Britain and China.