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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.


The Hill District Reservation Ordinance bans Chinese from living in the exclusive Peak area. (It is repealed in 1946.)

The Hong Kong-Canton railway is completed.

The Kuomintang (Nationalist) government of China, then in Canton, supports a year-long strike and boycott against British interests in Hong Kong.

Anti-Japanese riots erupt as Japan prepares to invade northeast China (Manchuria). These are repeated in 1932 and 1937.

Kai Tak Airport opens for commercial flights.

Japanese forces invade; British forces surrender on Christmas Day after a two-week battle.

Japan surrenders after a harsh occupation. The population of Hong Kong has dropped to 600,000, well below half the prewar total.

The governor, Sir Mark Young, proposes major reforms of the political system. They include creating a Municipal Council with responsibility for most civic affairs; 32 of its 48 members would be elected though the right to vote would be limited. The Young plan fails, partly due to opposition from a business community that fears electoral politics could bring social unrest and higher taxes. All subsequent reform plans have met similar opposition.

The Communist victory on the mainland prompts an increased refugee flow into Hong Kong, including many Shanghai businessmen who move their operations to the colony. The rate rises and falls over the years according to conditions inside China; the Hong Kong population increases from 1.8 million in 1947 to 3.7 million in 1961.

The British House of Commons is told that political reform in Hong Kong is "inopportune."

A Christmas Day fire destroys a squatter settlement and leaves 50,000 homeless. The government begins a public housing program that eventually will provide homes for 2.4 million people.

Riots erupt between supporters of the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang Party. As a result, Hong Kong security agencies tighten their supervision of KMT agents.

Food shortages cause Chinese border guards to stand aside for several days and let 70,000 refugees walk into Hong Kong.

Police use tear gas to disperse mobs protesting a small increase in first-class fares on the Star Ferry. These are interpreted as signs of a deeper social discontent.

Inspired by the Cultural Revolution in China, leftists begin sometimes-violent protests against the "evil British authorities". These gain only limited support from ordinary citizens and the Beijing government, and dissipate after six months.

The first cross-harbor tunnel opens.

Criminal cases involving police corruption lead to establishment of the autonomous Independent Commission Against Corruption.

"Boat people" refugees from Vietnam, mostly ethnic Chinese, begin arriving. About 150,000 will arrive by 1982, with most resettled overseas after spending time in special camps. But 20,000 are returned to Vietnam just before the 1997 handover.
Work begins on the Mass Transit Railway (completed in 1989).

Britain begins calling Hong Kong a "territory" rather than a "colony". The Colonial Secretary, the senior civil servant, becomes the Chief Secretary and the Colonial Secretariat becomes the Government Secretariat.

Sir Murray MacLehose becomes the first Hong Kong governor to visit Beijing during the Communist era. Deng Xiaoping states that China will reassert sovereignty over a Hong Kong "special region" after June 30, 1997 but major issues, such as a possible British administrative role, are left unclear.

The government stops granting asylum to Chinese refugees who safely reach urban areas - the "touch base" system - and begins returning those it catches to the mainland.

After rejecting broader political proposals, the government allows some members of 18 new District Boards to be elected. These boards have limited authority over local civic works.

Former British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath is told by Deng in Beijing that after 1997 China will rule Hong Kong under a "one country, two systems" policy, giving it a "high degree" of political and economic autonomy but with no role for the U.K.
Later that year, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arrives in Beijing and reluctantly opens negotiations about the future status of the territory. The talks are perceived beginning badly, and the Hong Kong dollar eventually loses about 50% of its value.

To stabilize the currency, the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar at the rate of HK$7.8 to US$1, a ratio that remains in force.

Britain concedes publicly that its administrative role in Hong Kong will end in 1997. London and Beijing agree that it will be ruled under a detailed Basic Law, a mini-constitution, for 50 years.

China publishes its Basic Law, which raises fears about the future of civil liberties.

The Chinese army attack on Tien An Men protesters in Beijing causes huge demonstrations in Hong Kong, with an estimated one million people taking part.
Britain and China agree that 18 of 60 seats in the Legislative Council will be chosen by direct elections in 1991, with increases to 20 by the 1997 handover and 30 by 2003.

Construction of the new Chek Lap Kok airport begins despite Chinese objections.

The first general elections for Legislative Council seats are held, with 18 of 60 members selected by public ballot. The United Democrats win 17 of the contested seats; the other 42 members are elected indirectly or appointed.

Chris Patten, a leading Conservative Party politician, becomes the last British governor of Hong Kong.
In his first policy address in October, Patten announces major political reforms. In addition to having 20 Legco seats elected by general ballot in 1995, as previously scheduled, the changes include a major expansion of the franchise for selecting the other 40 members by indirect voting. China objects vigorously, calling it a violation of the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law that govern the scheduled 1997 handover.
In November, prompted by the political dispute, China announces that all "contracts, leases and agreements" signed by the Hong Kong government and not previously approved by Beijing will become invalid on July 1, 1997. These include construction of Chek Lap Kok airport and a container terminal. In December, it states that all election results and legislation passed in the absence of a Sino-British agreement will be nullified after the handover.

The Patten reforms receive initial approval by Legco. Beijing states it will not recognize them.

The reforms receive final Legco approval after an amendment to block them fails by one vote. China's opposition continues.

After lengthy negotiations, Britain and China agree on terms for a new Court of Final Appeal, one that gives Beijing the right to overrule judicial decisions in certain cases.
All 60 Legco members are elected, directly or indirectly, for the first time. China denounces the vote and repeats that it will abolish the assembly on July 1, 1997.

China chooses Tung Chee Wha, a shipping executive with ties to China, as the first post-1997 Chief Executive of Hong Kong; members of a new electoral commission selected by Beijing give him 320 of 400 votes. He is reputed to be honest, compassionate and deeply skeptical about democracy. In early moves, he sharply criticizes Patten's leadership, meets with the provisional legislature named by China to replace the existing Legco and selects pro-Beijing figures to join his new Exco. He supports plans to revise the existing bill or rights.

At midnight on June 30, in a solemn ceremony at which China is represented by President Jiang Zemin and Britain by Prince Charles, the official transfer of sovereignty is completed, ending 156 years of British rule. Tung becomes the first Chief Executive of the new Hong Kong SAR. Patten departs Hong Kong on the royal yacht Britannia.
China dissolves Legco and replaces it with 60 appointed legislators. None of the 20 popularly-elected members of the previous council keep their seats. New regulations about "national security" cause public concern that they could bring restrictions on free speech and other civic rights; in practice, not much changes. The Hong Kong government affirms that elections due in 1998 will be held on schedule. For reasons of continuity and stability, all senior government officials are retained with one exception; Elsie Leung replaces a Briton as Secretary for Justice, a job that under the Basic Law must go to a Hong Kong citizen. The new Chief Justice is a highly-respected barrister, Andrew Li, rather than a political figure with close ties to mainland authorities.
By yearend, the Tung administration is being criticized for its handling of economic fallout from the Asian financial crisis and a bird flu epidemic.

The new Chek Lap Kok airport opens; Kai Tak is closed.
Legco elections are held, with 20 seats being filled by direct popular vote and the rest by indirect voting that favors business and professional groups politically aligned to China.

The government bypasses the Court of Final Appeal and asks the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament, to interpret how the Basic Law should apply in a right-of-abode case. The NPC has the authority to do so under the Basic Law but the decision by the Tung government to ask Beijing for an early ruling is criticized by many as a precedent that weakens the Hong Kong judicial system.
The director of RTHK, the government broadcasting system, is transferred to another post after allowing a Taiwanese official to defend Taiwan's policy toward China in a broadcast.

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