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Evidence of human activity in what is now Hong Kong can be traced back to prehistoric times. But when the 19th century opened, the territory was mainly known for a few small villages, mostly home to fishermen and pirates. Seldom had anything occurred there to earn notice in the Chinese annals. However, once Britain took possession following the Opium Wars, Hong Kong developed into an important seaport, though a sleepy backwater to some and seldom a commercial match for bustling Shanghai.
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The 20th century brought Hong Kong enormous growth, great turbulence, enemy occupation and political uncertainty-plus a return to Chinese sovereignty. Mainland wars and revolution sent floods of refugees into the British Colony, yet also gave its traders new business opportunities-which they exploited with great exuberance. During the first two decades of Communist rule in Beijing, Hong Kong served as China's main outlet to the global economy, and its leading source of foreign exchange, as ideologues suppressed the country's own commercial talent. Hong Kong also became one of Asia's major business and services centers and a magnet for overseas companies. But as the century ended, China's newest Special Autonomous Region was still suffering from a regional financial crisis that began in 1997 and there were basic questions about how much of the promised self-rule China would permit.
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The early years of the 21st century saw Hong Kong recover from lengthy economic malaise and resume rapid growth. But political disputes intensified. A pro-democracy movement lobbied and demonstrated for speedier evolution to universal suffrage, which suspicious Communist cadre in Beijing refused to provide. This forced the resignation of Hong Kong's first Chief Executive, Tung Chee Hwa, an unpopular figure opposed to democratic rule, and brought into office the more personable Donald Tsang, who favored greater local autonomy but lacked the power to grant it.
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