Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Anxiety about Hong Kong’s future as part of China led to emigration, pressure on the United Kingdom to grant full citizenship to the people of Hong Kong, and a “brain drain” as residents of the island territory prepared for the 1997 handover to China.

Summary of Event

When the British government and the government of the People’s Republic of China reached an agreement in 1984 that Hong Kong would revert to Chinese control by 1997, the future of Hong Kong and its way of life became less certain. The people of Hong Kong, previously not very political, became concerned about the trustworthiness of Chinese promises. China had agreed that Hong Kong could keep its own economic system under the slogan, “one country, two systems.” The political structure, however, was not defined in the 1984 agreement. A joint China-Hong Kong commission was to prepare a constitution, called the “Basic Law,” which would provide the basis for the future political system. Work on this document proceeded during the late 1980’s. China;Hong Kong return Hong Kong, return to China [kw]Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover (Late 1984) [kw]Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover, Hong Kong’s (Late 1984) [kw]Chinese Takeover, Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for (Late 1984) [kw]Takeover, Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese (Late 1984) China;Hong Kong return Hong Kong, return to China [g]East Asia;Late 1984: Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover[05550] [g]Hong Kong;Late 1984: Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover[05550] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Late 1984: Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover[05550] [c]Government and politics;Late 1984: Hong Kong’s Citizens Prepare for Chinese Takeover[05550] Thatcher, Margaret [p]Thatcher, Margaret;Hong Kong Major, John Wilson, Sir David Lee, Martin Chu-Ming Howe, Geoffrey Hurd, Douglas Deng Xiaoping

As the 1980’s progressed, more and more residents of Hong Kong, fearful of what their future might be under Chinese rule, tried to acquire citizenship in another country in order to provide an escape hatch should a future of Chinese control prove unbearable. The central issue was not citizenship but the right of abode in another country, particularly the United Kingdom, since Hong Kong had long been a British colony and many of its citizens held some sort of British passport. These passports, however, did not give the majority of people in Hong Kong the right of abode in the United Kingdom.

Prior to 1948, the people of Hong Kong did have a right of abode in the United Kingdom. The number of people able to live in Britain was severely restricted as a result of the Commonwealth Act of 1962 Commonwealth Act (United Kingdom, 1962) and the Patriality Act of 1971. Patriality Act (United Kingdom, 1971) The intent of these laws was to limit the right of abode primarily to those born in Britain and people married to British citizens. Of the several types of British passports, only one, full citizenship, carries the right of abode. Only a minority of Hong Kong’s 5.5 million people had full citizenship status in the United Kingdom.

In the mid-1980’s, in large part prompted by the uncertainties introduced by the 1984 agreement between the United Kingdom and China, a “brain drain” began that resulted in the emigration of nineteen thousand people in 1986, thirty thousand in 1987, forty-six thousand in 1988, forty-two thousand in 1989, and sixty thousand in 1990. Because these people were well educated, highly trained, and often wealthy, competition began among a number of countries for the services of the wealthiest and most highly skilled of these émigrés. A few firms from Western countries offered citizenship to job applicants from Hong Kong. Some Third World countries offered citizenship for a fee. A few countries allowed immigration by Hong Kong citizens prepared to invest substantial sums of money. Canada, the United States, and Australia were the most common destinations of emigrants. Few chose or were granted the right to emigrate to the United Kingdom, a country already overcrowded with immigrants from former colonies.

In 1989, pressure to grant the right of abode in the United Kingdom escalated as panic broke out in Hong Kong after the Tiananmen Square massacre Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. The draft Basic Law for governing Hong Kong in the future had been released in the spring of 1989. Its weak provisions for democracy and human rights seemed to confirm that China intended to grant Hong Kong limited political rights. It was widely reported that Deng Xiaoping himself had stated that democracy was not necessary for Hong Kong. Furthermore, China had increasingly demanded a voice in the determination of significant policies affecting Hong Kong prior to 1997.

China asked for, and received, a number of concessions from the United Kingdom, especially on the Basic Law. In the final version approved in early 1990, it was agreed that only one-third of the legislature of Hong Kong would be popularly elected by 1995 and one-half by 2003, far smaller proportions than desired by democratic leaders of Hong Kong such as Martin Chu-Ming Lee. The proposed political arrangements for Hong Kong did not clearly protect human rights, civil rights, or economic rights. Little about the operation of the economy in the future was written into the Basic Law, and self-government would be introduced only through slow steps, with China maintaining the right to decide what degree of autonomy would be appropriate. China demanded a voice in economic policy, most notably in the construction of a major new airport whose financial ramifications were expected to affect the future solvency of Hong Kong after 1997. The airport was a contentious issue for several years, and only in 1991 did there appear to be a compromise among Britain, China, and Hong Kong, the three principal parties concerned with the project.

As all these pressures came to bear on the people of Hong Kong, criticism of British policy focused on several issues: reluctance to grant full citizenship to the people of Hong Kong, failure to consider political democracy for Hong Kong prior to the period of transition, and unwillingness to stand up to the Chinese on a number of key issues, including the airport and elected representatives for Hong Kong.

Hong King, in 1989, before the hand over to the People’s Republic of China by the United Kingdom.

(John Ho)

The concern in Hong Kong was not only with the right to emigrate should Chinese rule prove too restrictive but also with the whole range of political and civil rights to be granted under the new government. As of 1997, all Hong Kong residents of Chinese origin would be granted Chinese passports. People of other nationalities would not receive Chinese passports. Since Western foreigners generally held passports from their respective nations, those left without citizenship would be primarily non-Chinese Asians, of whom the largest single group might be Indians. Their future status in Hong Kong was unclear. For the British, the status of non-Chinese Asians in Hong Kong simply made the problems of British citizenship and the right of abode more complicated.

In the aftermath of the upheaval on the Chinese mainland in mid-1989, it became clear that many Hong Kong residents had lost confidence in the prospects for an autonomous, democratic, economically independent Hong Kong. Pressure on Britain to grant passports with the right of abode in the United Kingdom therefore escalated. At the same time, it was repeatedly asserted that the right of abode in Great Britain was needed primarily as an escape valve or insurance policy. The “brain drain” from Hong Kong, it was noted, had not resulted in mass migration to the United Kingdom; most immigrants preferred Canada, the United States, or Australia.

As a compromise solution, the British government eventually proposed to grant a maximum of 50,000 passports (in 1991 and 1993) to civil servants and others who had served the Crown. This measure would result in immigration to the United Kingdom of about one-quarter million people when family members were counted far from the 3.5 million or 5 million passports requested by various lobbies, but even this compromise had difficulty passing the British House of Commons. Although initially there was a great rush to obtain passport application forms, the complex thirty-two-page application apparently deterred many potential applicants. Only 60,000 people applied for the 43,500 passports to be made available in 1991. Ironically, there was disappointment in Britain about the meager response to the request for applications. Meanwhile, the “brain drain” from Hong Kong increased. Moreover, the Chinese government, angered by the British legislation, threatened that civil servants with dual citizenship would not be allowed to work for the government after 1997.


In 1984, faced with an uncertain future within China, the people of Hong Kong were at the mercy of foreign governments. The more affluent and the younger, well-educated people began a mass exodus to countries willing to receive them.

Britain was not perceived as a strong advocate for the people of Hong Kong in its negotiations with China. Some analysts have questioned whether it was even necessary to return Hong Kong to China by 1997. A few note that even Mao Zedong had been willing to let Hong Kong be its window on the West and did not feel the need to absorb Hong Kong as part of China. Some believed that after 1997 China would interpret its slogan of “one country, two systems” narrowly. Others, however, were persuaded that China would preserve as much of Hong Kong’s economic system as possible because it would be economically profitable for China to do so. China;Hong Kong return Hong Kong, return to China

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dejevsky, Mary. “Hong Kong Chinese Accuse Mother Country of Betrayal.” The Times (London), March 20, 1989. Analyzes the plight of civil servants in Hong Kong, few of whom would be given British citizenship despite long service to the British.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliot, John. “The Urge for Insurance Against the Worst.” Financial Times (London), June 22, 1989. Journalist who closely followed the Hong Kong story explains the thinking of the people in Hong Kong about their future prospects with China. Analyzes their underlying desire to have full British passports as a form of insurance, not as a step toward migrating to the United Kingdom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howe, Geoffrey. “Statement on Hong Kong.” London Press Service, July 3, 1989. In a speech on Hong Kong, British foreign secretary Howe described the granting of “right of abode” as impractical. He expressed the fear of mass migration to an already crowded Britain. About three weeks after this speech, Howe was relieved as foreign secretary and replaced for a short time by John Major before the position was given to Douglas Hurd. It is not clear whether there was a connection between Howe’s Hong Kong policy statements and his dismissal, but Hong Kong was not sorry to see him leave his post.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurd, Douglas. “Speech on Hong Kong.” London Press Service, December 20, 1989. British foreign secretary Hurd explains the compromise British policy of granting British citizenship to about fifty thousand heads of household in Hong Kong who had worked for the Crown. Discusses the legislation as a confidence-building measure designed to persuade people to stay in Hong Kong.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Munro, Ross H. “Who Lost Hong Kong?” Commentary 90 (December, 1990): 33-39. Analyzes the evolution of British policy on Hong Kong from the 1970’s to 1990. Contrasts the optimism of Hong Kong in the late 1970’s with the somber mood of Hong Kong in 1990. Argues that the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was not inevitable and that British policy was flawed in negotiations with China in 1979. Details the events leading to the agreement of 1984.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, David Clark. “Hong Kong’s Migrant Millionaires.” World Monitor 2 (May, 1989): 38-43. Describes immigration to Canada and the United States and provides some background on the problem in Hong Kong. Written before the events of June, 1989, at Tiananmen Square, and presents a good sense of the emigration patterns prior to the panic engendered by those events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsang, Steve. Hong Kong: An Appointment with China. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997. Provides an overview of Hong Kong’s history and discusses the implications of the handover to China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. A Modern History of Hong Kong. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004. Discusses the history of Hong Kong from the time of its occupation by the British in 1841 to its return to China in 1997. Includes maps and index.

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Categories: History