Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Great Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 ended more than 150 years of colonial rule in a territory that had grown to be a world-class financial and economic center. A long-standing issue between two of the world’s leading powers was resolved peacefully.

Summary of Event

In its entirety, Hong Kong the British colony comprised three territories that Great Britain acquired at different times. Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain by China in 1842, after China’s loss of the First Opium War. In 1860, having been defeated in the Second Opium War, China ceded to Britain the part of the Kowloon Peninsula that is south of the present-day Boundary Street, including Stonecutter’s Island. In 1898, Britain leased from China what is known as the New Territories for a period of ninety-nine years. China;Hong Kong return Hong Kong, return to China [kw]Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China (July 1, 1997) [kw]People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong Becomes Part of the (July 1, 1997) [kw]China, Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of (July 1, 1997) China;Hong Kong return Hong Kong, return to China [g]East Asia;July 1, 1997: Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China[09730] [g]Hong Kong;July 1, 1997: Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China[09730] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;July 1, 1997: Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China[09730] [c]Government and politics;July 1, 1997: Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China[09730] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 1, 1997: Hong Kong Becomes Part of the People’s Republic of China[09730] Deng Xiaoping Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;Hong Kong Patten, Christopher Tung Chee-hwa

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China’s new government, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, refused to recognize the validity of the treaties by which Britain secured the control of Hong Kong. The Chinese government, however, did not actively seek the return of Hong Kong in the three decades that followed. In the late 1970’s, as the expiration date for the lease on the New Territories drew closer, uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong began to affect the economic stability of the British colony. Around the same time, following the death of Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1976, China began to experiment with reformist policies, one component of which was a greater degree of openness to the outside world. The British and Chinese governments approached each other and launched negotiations on the Hong Kong question.

In the initial stage of the negotiations, British officials explored the possibility of resolving the issue through the exchange of administrative rights for sovereignty—Britain would restore sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, and China, in return, would recognize a continued British role in the administration of Hong Kong beyond 1997. On her visit to Beijing in September, 1982, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher held talks with China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in which she stressed the benefits of continued British involvement in Hong Kong’s administration beyond 1997. The Chinese government, however, was not receptive to the idea, insisting that sovereignty was not negotiable. Subsequent talks then proceeded on the assumption that the return of Hong Kong would apply to both sovereignty and administration and would include Hong Kong Island, Kowloon Peninsula, and the New Territories. For its part, the Chinese government promised to apply to Hong Kong the policy of “one country, two systems,” under which Hong Kong would become part of the People’s Republic of China but would enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

On December 19, 1984, the Chinese and British governments signed the Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong, Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong (1984) commonly known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984)[Sinobritish Joint Declaration] The British government announced that it would “restore Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China with effect from 1 July 1997.” The Chinese government proclaimed its decision “to establish a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region upon resuming the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong.” The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) is “to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except for foreign and defence affairs.” It would be “vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication.” Hong Kong would also retain its existing social and economic systems as well as lifestyle. These policies, the Chinese government pledged, would remain unchanged for fifty years after the return of Hong Kong. In April, 1990, the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China passed the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, which would serve as Hong Kong’s constitution after 1997.

With the 1984 Joint Declaration and the 1990 Basic Law, Britain and China laid the path to the 1997 handover. Still, wrangling over Hong Kong’s future continued, in particular with regard to political issues and especially after the Chinese government’s violent suppression of popular protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. Many residents in the colony were skeptical of Chinese leaders’ intentions toward Hong Kong and called for democratic reforms of the governmental system in Hong Kong before the Chinese takeover. Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, proposed and implemented policies to that effect. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, which hereto had been largely an appointed body, was strengthened, with twenty of its sixty members to be produced through direct elections.

The Chinese government denounced such reform efforts as hypocritical in nature since they took place at the last minute before Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China, and it viewed the changes as violations of the Joint Declaration. The NPC accordingly declared that the Legislative Council of Hong Kong would not survive beyond July 1, 1997. The Chinese government vowed to follow the gradual approach to political reforms outlined in the Basic Law, which provides that approximately seven years after Hong Kong’s return, thirty of the sixty members of the Legislative Council shall be produced through direct elections, and that eventually all members of the Legislative Council will be returned by universal suffrage.

In December, 1996, an electoral college of four hundred Hong Kong voters selected sixty members of a Provisional Legislative Council, which was to hold office until a new election, scheduled for May, 1998, to produce a new legislature. The electoral college also named Tung Chee-hwa, a fifty-nine-year-old businessman, as the first chief executive of the Hong Kong SAR; the central government formally appointed Tung shortly afterward.

The transfer of the sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain to China officially took place through a spectacular but solemn ceremony held on June 30-July 1, 1997, in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Representing the United Kingdom at the ceremony were Prince Charles, Prime Minister Tony Blair, Governor Christopher Patten, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, and Chief of the Defense Staff Charles Guthrie. Appearing on behalf of China were President Jiang Zemin, Premier Li Peng, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Zhang Wannian, and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Among the dignitaries witnessing the transfer were former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright.

Shortly before midnight, Prince Charles delivered a farewell speech on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II to Hong Kong residents in which he praised the Hong Kong people and wished them good fortune in the years to come. British national flag and the Hong Kong colonial flag were then lowered, accompanied by the U.K. anthem, “God Save the Queen.” At midnight, China’s national flag and the flag of the Hong Kong SAR were raised, accompanied by the Chinese anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” President Zemin then delivered a speech in which he promised the faithful implementation of the “one country, two systems” policy and expressed his confidence in the future of Hong Kong.


In the years immediately following its return to China, Hong Kong experienced various challenges but generally weathered the difficulties well. Politically, concerns remain over the pace of democratic reforms and the protection of people’s liberties, but the much-feared collapse and chaos did not materialize. Economically, in spite of the ill effects of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998 and the global downturn in 2001-2002, Hong Kong achieved an average annual gross domestic product growth rate of 4.3 percent from 2000 to 2005.

Hong Kong’s return in 1997 is a matter of great national pride to the Chinese people. The loss of Hong Kong Island in 1842 marked the beginning of a historical period full of defeats and humiliation for China. With the recovery of Hong Kong, many Chinese could finally bring closure to that ignominious chapter in their history. The reversion of Hong Kong also testifies to the ability of countries in the world to settle their disagreements peacefully and to bring about results generally acceptable to all the parties involved. Furthermore, the return of Hong Kong based on the principle of “one country, two systems” provides China with an opportunity to confront issues such as pluralism, freedom, and democratic changes as the country pursues modernization in the twenty-first century. China;Hong Kong return Hong Kong, return to China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ash, Robert, et al., eds. Hong Kong in Transition: One Country, Two Systems. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. Articles covering the economic, political, legal, and cultural life of Hong Kong since 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Judith M., and Rosemary Foot, eds. Hong Kong’s Transitions, 1842-1997. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. History of Hong Kong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buckley, Roger. Hong Kong: The Road to 1997. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. History of Hong Kong from 1945 to the events leading up to the handover.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chung, Sze-yuen. Hong Kong’s Journey to Reunification: Memoirs of Sze-yuen Chung. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2001. Recollections and reflections of a Hong Kong industrialist and politician.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dimbleby, Jonathan. The Last Governor: Chris Patten and the Handover of Hong Kong. London: Little, Brown, 1999. Biography of the British official who oversaw Hong Kong’s return to China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patten, Chris. East and West: The Last Governor of Hong Kong on Power, Freedom, and the Future. New York: Times Books, 1998. The last British governor of Hong Kong reflects on issues related to Hong Kong and China.

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