From the mid-17th century until it was administratively fragmented by the Treaty of Nanking (1842), Treaty of Tientsin (1858) and Second Convention of Peking (1898), the southeastern Pearl River Delta was governed as part of Sun On (“new peace”) county, also at various times known as Po On (“precious peace”) county. This district incorporated what is today Shenzhen (north about as far as Shenzhen Airport), the New Territories, the outlying islands, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
As Hong Kong edges ever closer towards being, for most practical purposes, the Xianggang district of Shenzhen, many who live here are feeling profoundly uncomfortable. That this inexorable process is now happening faster than most are prepared to openly acknowledge is obvious to any clear-eyed observer. What follows is a brief history lesson for Hong Kong’s growing legion of identity politicians, and those who misguidedly believe that Hong Kong and its people have a history stretching back some 1,400 years, manifest in forms and continuities recognisable to modern residents.
In pre-British times – that is, before 1841 – the Hong Kong region was garrisoned from a sizeable fort at Tai Pang, east of today’s Shenzhen. Civil administration was conducted from Nam Tau, close to Deep Bay; the fort, along with the magistracy and civil administration buildings, is now a historic site. Defences located on the lower slopes of Castle Peak, from which Tuen Mun (“fortified gate”) takes its name, existed from Tang times, though no physical trace remains. A small Chinese garrison in a remote regional outpost, this was not – as some contemporary commentators allege – a Hong Kong fort manned by Hongkongers. Why not? Because 1,400 years ago there were no Hongkongers in any sense that contemporary residents would recognise.
In much the same way, there were no Italians in the 14th century, Germans in the 18th, or Singaporeans in the 19th. There were Venetians and Florentines, Prussians and Bavarians, and the disparate confluence of peoples from everywhere from Massachusetts and the Levant to the Malay archipelago, southern India, China and Japan who had settled around the Strait of Malacca. Woolly postmodernism, in which all “opinions” are “valid”, lies at the root of this inaccurate and dangerously misleading re-categorisation.
For all practical purposes, to the average Chinese resident, Hong Kong and China formed one country until the Communist takeover in 1949. No border control existed until 1950, when it was instituted to deal with the refugee crisis, which numbered 1,000 arrivals a day as the civil war neared its end. Before that, the tide of people ebbed and flowed between the British colony and their ancestral homes scattered across the Pearl River Delta as readily as individual needs dictated. Until recent decades, few Hong Kong residents of Chinese descent – in so far that they even considered the matter – thought of themselves as anything other than Chinese. Even once the “bamboo curtain” descended in the early 1950s, mainland travel restrictions only applied, in practice, to foreigners. Hong Kong and Macau “compatriots”, armed with the requisite permits, could travel easily, and can still do so. But, having escaped from Communist rule once, many had no desire to return, and that sentiment remains widespread.
As the “one country” component of the “one country, two systems” formula becomes increasingly paramount in Hong Kong affairs, it is vital to understand the “Hongkonger” concept in the context of the relatively recent past, and how previous local identities – or the historical lack of them – have been reimagined to suit contemporary political agendas.