How Great Power Politics Shaped Hong Kong’s Sovereignty
As colonized subjects, Hong Kongers had played a limited role in shaping their future: Their legitimate right to self-determination was never allowed to exercise, and whatever existing model of governance today originated from the Sino-British negotiations that barred their participation. As a small British colony adjacent to communist China, Hong Kong had played an unusually important role on the global stage since the end of World War II. These conditions, however, meant that it had become an arena where great powers — China, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union--had exerted their influence in order to advance their respective agendas. Consequently, the territory’s destiny had been shaped not by Hong Kongers but by politics beyond the control of its people.
Although it is customary for Beijing to interpret the 1997 handover of Hong Kong as an inevitable “reunion with the motherland,” this project counters that narrative by showing how, at various points between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, the story of Hong Kong’s sovereignty could have gone differently but did not.
And at every one of these instances, I argue, the role of Hong Kongers were not meaningful as so much was happening without their knowledge. This included, for instance, a 1957 deal Dwight Eisenhower had made to defend the colony with nuclear weapons in exchange for Harold Macmillan not to surrender it to the Chinese and his cooperation in blocking Beijing’s entry to the U.N., a bitter dispute over Hong Kong’s status as part of the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s, a saga in 1972 that resulted in the removal of Hong Kong from the U.N. list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, an invention by Deng Xiaoping in 1981 initially for absorbing Taiwan that ended up applying to Hong Kong because of political realities, and, of course, the negotiations behind closed doors between Beijing and the Margaret Thatcher administration throughout the 1980s that sealed Hong Kong’s fate.
The historiography of Hong Kong has long been dominated by pro-Chinese and pro-British perspectives. The former centers on an anti-colonial struggle experience and condemns imperialism, while the latter focuses on the contribution of Britain in transforming Hong Kong into a thriving global metropolis. As much as they are different, they unfortunately also share a neglect of the local people as part of Hong Kong’s history. This is evident on the issue of sovereignty, as neither narrative sufficiently considers Hong Kongers as a distinct community who should not be simply viewed as Chinese subjects under British rule. This project, therefore, strives to make a unique contribution to the histories of Hong Kong, Chinese politics, the British Empire, global decolonization, and the Cold War.