• Karan Sirdesai

A heist of global proportions- stealing the Pearl of the Orient

A brief history of Hong Kong's tumultuous origins, and an attempt to understand its future.

When I was a child - Hong Kong was the biggest, baddest tourist destination for the middle class Indian. A budget London or New York, a small piece of the West hidden in the Eastern Seas - truly a Jewel.

Today however, it seems to be a different story. With the Chinese trying to spread their tentacles all over the city, the city has turned into a war zone. No I don't think its going to be the next Aleppo, but the city has been the ground zero for civilian protests for the good part of the last decade, especially with the growing power of the city's nefarious foe - China. But why is Hong Kong the source of such conflict? What makes it so culturally and politically incompatible with its immediate surroundings?

To understand the roots of this conflict, I thought we'd take a small trip into the past. Hong Kong's story in inextricably with 2 world-renowned drugs Opium and ...... Tea. Yes tea, the the same drink that you gulp down in copious quantities every day. It has a much bigger role in our history than you can imagine. So big in fact that without it, Hong Kong would never have existed.

A traditional chinese tea party painting circa 8th Century

We all know tea was invented in China. It was very popular there. But tea started gaining relevance in the West, mainly Europe, after the trade to the Far East opened up in the 16th Century. The Brits, Spaniards, Portuguese all wanted to trade with the the Chinese (Qing) Empire. China had tea, porcelain and silk, all coveted commodities, so coveted in fact that they even justified the expensive global transportation cost (no Fedex back in the day).

All this maritime trade, and I mean all of it happened through a tiny but hugely important delta called Canton. What is Canton today? We'll get to that a little later. Just remember that it was super important then and it is super important now.

The Chinese, as they are today, were shrewd businessmen. They understood the value of their goods and only exchanged them for silver. Initially this was all perfectly okay, the silver from the mines in South America was enough to fund all these extravagances. But like all good things, this didn't last.

Tea, the blockbuster it is, was a hit in England. Everybody wanted more of it and nobody could get enough. Originally a drink of the elite, it soon spread across the whole country like a virus (too soon?). Now this posed a problem for the Brits, because they were running out of silver. Unlike their Iberian buddies, they didn't have colonies in South America producing silver at breakneck speeds. The British bought so much tea that their own coffers were running dry, threatening their currency and their economy.

It seemed certain that the British would need to bow out of the Far East tea trade, especially since the Chinese were not willing to accept anything but silver for their precious tea. But as all British colonies learnt the hard way, you never count out the Wily Brits.

The British East India Company ('EIC' for short), came up with an ingenious plan to acquire more silver. They decided to sell the Chinese their favorite drug - Opium, and accept only silver for payment. Initially the Chinese Empire paid little heed to the opium trade, as it was too small for them to notice. What they didn't know was that the EIC and its network of shady traders were smuggling vast quantities of the drug into all parts of china and getting the entire population hooked.

I know what you're thinking, this is some real Pablo Escobar sh*t. You aren't wrong, the EIC was once the world's largest drug dealer. Lets break down what they did:

1 - Smuggle Opium into China and get the population addicted.

2 - Sell Opium to the Chinese illegally for silver.

3 - Use that Silver to buy tea.

4 - Sell the tea in England

5 - ££££££

All while Opium was already considered illegal back in Britain. Yeah that pretty screwed up.

A Chinese Opium Den

Anyway, soon enough the Chinese Government caught on and wasn't too happy with the situation. Not only was the Chinese population being converted into junkies, but it was also straining the Chinese Economy. So, they actively started to crack down on the opium trade and seize opium stockpiles. This pissed off the British. Eventually, one thing led to another and led to the inevitable conclusion - war. The First Opium war to be precise.

A scene from the First Opium War

The war was long and bloody, but long story short the British Navy kicked the Chinese's ass. It was a humiliating loss for the Chinese. The Chinese, had to sign numerous surrender treaties that put them in a horrible position in the Far East trade, setting the stage for further British expansion.

In one of those treaties, the Treaty of Nanking, was a small, almost inconsequential, clause to cede a tiny island to the British, a small base that allowed trading ships to rest before moving into Canton - Hong Kong.

Yes, that is the history of the creation of Hong Kong - a British Enclave in the East, a child of drugs and war - much like Scarface.

Further more, the Island was consolidated as British territory in 1898 with the 99-year lease. The funny thing is that the concept of a 99-year lease never really meant literally 99 years. It is just an arbitrary term in common law that effectively means indefinitely. In fact, at the time of signing, both parties casually used the words 99 years because both of them thought Hong Kong would be British forever.

Ever since then, Hong Kong has always been a trophy of the West. A source of British Imperial pride. Not just that, it has always acted as a counterbalance to the East. The Western Liberalism vs. Chinese Conservatism, Free Market vs. State Control. Democracy vs. Communism.

If I were the Chinese I wouldn't have liked that very much.

Further, the Canton region (you though I forgot about it, didn't you?) developed into the most economically prosperous part of the country, all supported by Hong Kong. Today it loosely comprises of the city of Guangzhou, a major Chinese Metropolis, Shenzhen, China's Silicon Valley, Macau, an ex-Portuguese colony turned Casino Town and last but not least, Hong Kong itself.

In the 1980s, The Chinese saw the 99 year lease expiring and used this as an opportunity to take back Hong Kong, refusing to surrender to British demands of extending the lease. This was a difficult situation for the British. Remember, Hong Kong wasn't like India or other British colonies, the Brits actually cared for the citizens of Hong Kong (some of them at least). They had a unique cultural identity of being British themselves, carefully cultivated to differentiate them from their Mainland Chinese counterparts. The best way I can put it is this way - Imagine taking the most patriotic and pro-India district in Kashmir and one day just handing it to Pakistan.

This left the citizens of the city in a lurch - a threat of of losing their kaleidoscopic character loomed on the horizon. Fearing erosion of all those values they held dear - democracy, privacy, and civil rights - a lot of them fled the city. For the British, it was almost like abandoning its citizens - people who had grown up entrenched in western culture and influence were now suddenly thrust into the hands of the Chinese. The British, to be fair to them, negotiated hard and struck a decent deal - One Country, Two Systems, securing at least some of the rights of the City of Hong Kong by giving it the power of Economic, legal and Administrative self-determination. This set the stage for the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The deal, like i said, was a good one - in theory. The issue, like most other issues with China, is that China doesn't really tend to keep its promises. China got rich and powerful, and now tries to subvert and circumvent the Basic Law (the law negotiated with the British) every opportunity it gets. While the two system theory was to expire by 2048 anyway, the CCP seems to be in an awful hurry to take control of Hong Kong ASAP.

Hongkongers though, are a stubborn bunch. They don't back down from the threats and bullying that they face from the Chinese. We've seen it time and time again from the umbrella revolution to the 2019 Protest against the infamous extradition bill. Hong Kong's latest battle wages against the National Security law that China is trying to impose on the city.

The law seeks to prohibit activities that would ‘seriously endanger national security’. Seems normal enough right? The devil lies in the details, because of China’s liberal interpretation of ‘national security’ - ask Lu Xiaobo. Or the Uighurs for that matter. While the national security law is being touted by the CCP as beneficial to Hong Kong, Hongkongers, as the city’s residents are known, see it as a move to crush dissent through demonstration and protest and grab further power in the semi-autonomous city state.

This may seem like a big deal, and it is, but in the long run it’s just another step China is taking, now more boldly than ever, to complete its annexation of Hong Kong. And the citizens are fighting it the only way they know how- through protest.

A still of the 2019 protest against China's infamous extradition law

The battle scars Hong Kong suffers from these protests don't easily heal. Economically, Hong Kong is seen as one of the world's premier financial centers, but with severe political destabilization and the threat of inevitable Chinese dominion, many wonder how long will it last. And with China's Major Economic centers speeding ahead, how much relevance Hong Kong will really hold in the long run remains to be seen.

It is heartening though to see that despite the gloom, Hong Kong's Citizens keep the fight going, no matter the cost. Because they know, they're not just battling to protect their freedom, but also to save their identity.

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