During its brief time under British rule, Hong Kong has witnessed war, the rise and fall of empires, and has played a role in intrigues, big deals and diplomacy of global proportions. After 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong is again ruled by China. The change took place at midnight on June 30, 1997.

Hong Kong is made up of a peninsula on the mainland of China and more than 230 islands. The main island is called Hong Kong Island and lies south of the peninsula. Hong Kong Island became a British colony when it was ceded from China in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking. The British used the ports on Hong Kong to export tea, silk, and porcelain to England. The Chinese Emperor did not like the British. He called them guailo, which means foreign devil, and attempted to keep the British separate from the Chinese. During this period, China accepted only silver bullion as payment for goods. At the start of the 19th century, the British realized that they could purchase silks and teas in exchange for opium.

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China outlawed the drug, but many people were already addicted, which caused the economy of China to suffer. The Opium Wars began when China publicly destroyed a British ship that carried chests of opium. In January 1841, the British navy claimed Hong Kong Island. The Opium Wars finally ended in 1898, when Britain executed a 99-year lease of the New Territories. Kowloon Peninsula was acquired by the convention of Peking (now called Beijing) in 1860. China has guaranteed to permit the existing capitalist economy and lifestyle to exist for 50 years. Hong Kong will retain a high degree of autonomy except for defense and foreign affairs. Regaining control of Hong Kong serves two purposes.

First, it will erase what the Chinese have viewed as a period of disgrace. The Chinese have always considered the Treaty of Nanking, which passed control of Hong Kong over to Britain as unfair. Second, they felt it would greatly benefit China’s economy. A communist government rules China. The British, however, have ruled Hong Kong as a democracy. Many people are wondering how the differences between these two forms of government will affect the people and economy of Hong Kong. Even though Hong Kong is a part of China, it is a special region. For a time, at least, the people of Hong Kong have rights that people throughout the rest of China do not have.

Chinese on the mainland currently experience life much differently than the people of Hong Kong. The communists do not allow the right to free speech. Everyone must support the ideas of communism. No one is allowed to speak against the government.

Most of the laws of Hong Kong remain largely unchanged. The Basic Law, whom China agreed to keep in place for 50 years, should protect the freedoms of those living in Hong Kong. They continue to have freedom of speech, travel, and religion. They can also own property and choose the type of work they do.

Communist governments normally do not allow such freedoms. When protection of the Basic Law ends, new laws can be made under China’s direction. Some people are worried that freedom of the press and other personal rights will not be kept. They are also concerned that the communist government will tighten its control over the people of Hong Kong. China also will need to work with the popular Democratic Party.

Many business people in Hong Kong think that China itself will follow Hong Kong’s lead and change. They believe that as China’s economy grows, new conditions will be created that will lead to more freedom for all of China’s people. For the transfer of power to be successful, changes are being made slowly.