Hong Kong's handover: How the UK returned it to China

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Official banners marking the anniversary stress the unity with Beijing

On 1 July, Hong Kong marks the 20th anniversary of the handover from British rule back to China.

Here is what you need to know:

What led to the handover?

Britain first took over Hong Kong island in 1842, after defeating China in the First Opium War. After the Second Opium War, Beijing was forced to also cede Kowloon in 1860, the area on the mainland opposite the island.

In 1898, to enforce its control of the area, the UK leased additional land, known as the New Territories, promising to return them to China in 99 years.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Britain's last governor of Hong Kong receives the Union Jack flag after it is lowered for the last time

Hong Kong developed rapidly under UK rule, becoming one of the world's major financial and business centres.

Then in 1982, London and Beijing began the difficult process of negotiating the territory's return to Chinese rule.

Hong Kong had developed a vastly different political and economic system from mainland China, which since 1949 had been under authoritarian one-party Communist rule.

Read more about Hong Kong since the handover:

What was agreed for the future of Hong Kong?

China agreed to govern Hong Kong under the principle of "one country, two systems", where the city would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for the next 50 years.

Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region. This means it has:

  • its own legal system
  • multiple political parties
  • rights including freedom of assembly and free speech

The territory has its own mini-constitution to enshrine these special rights.

Called the Basic Law, it states that "the ultimate aim" is to elect the territory's leader, the chief executive, "by universal suffrage" and "in accordance with democratic procedures".

How is Hong Kong ruled now?

The leader is the chief executive, elected by a 1,200-member election committee. A majority of the members of this committee are viewed as pro-Beijing.

Media caption,
Hong Kong's chief executive elect Carrie Lam says the city is inseparable from China

The parliament is the Legislative Council (LegCo). It is made up half of directly elected representatives and half by representatives chosen by professional or special interest groups.

Political activists argue that the election process gives Beijing the ability to screen out any candidates it disapproves of.

Why are there protests?

Pro-democracy activists have been campaigning for years for Hong Kong people to have the right to elect their own leader.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The past years have seen many clashes between protesters and police

In 2014, Beijing said it would allow direct election of the chief executive, but only from a list of pre-approved candidates.

That lead to mass protests from people who wanted full direct democracy. The protests shut down central parts of the city for weeks. The move was later reversed.

There are also a lot of people in Hong Kong who are concerned that China is increasingly meddling in Hong Kong politics in other ways, undermining more politically liberal traditions.

So Hong Kong is increasingly divided into:

  • a pro-Beijing camp in favour of more political say for China's Communist Party
  • a pro-democracy camp that wants to strengthen Hong Kong's autonomy and unique identity

The anniversary of the handover is usually also marked by large demonstrations from both camps of the political divide.

What will happen after 2047?

That's the date after which mainland China is no longer obliged to grant the autonomy agreed on with Britain before the handover.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Hong Kong's future beyond 2047 remains unclear

While there are some who call for full independence, China has ruled out that option.

The likely paths therefore will be:

  • China grants an extension of the current autonomy and the city's Basic Law
  • China will allow some of the current privileges but not all
  • Hong Kong will lose its special status and become a normal Chinese province with no autonomy

With an increasingly politicised younger generation, most observers expect a tough political struggle over the city's future.

More on this story