15 September 2019
A painting of the Hong Kong Island in the late 1800s when early developments took place along the waterfront. Before Britons came in 1841, there was no  Hong Kong but “a barren island with hardly a house on it”. Photo: Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong
A painting of the Hong Kong Island in the late 1800s when early developments took place along the waterfront. Before Britons came in 1841, there was no Hong Kong but “a barren island with hardly a house on it”. Photo: Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong

Events that could have changed Hong Kong as we know it

What does Zhoushan (舟山) have to do with Hong Kong?

Many locals may not even have heard of the place, a small prefecture-level city in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang that is mainly comprised of scattered barren islands with a population of slightly over a million.

One may wonder how history would have been if Zhoushan was ceded in perpetuity after the First Opium War in 1842.

It was said that Britons initially thought of Zhoushan, already a burgeoning port, as a foothold for the East India Company because of its close proximity to China’s heartland and major tea plantations, the country’s primary export back then.

But the defeated Qing, though a precarious dynasty, rejected the proposal as otherwise the new colony would be too close to Jiangnan (江南), or the Yangtze River Delta, a breadbasket that contributed almost a third of the country’s tax income.

Britain then looked southward and picked some mosquito-ridden rocks east of the Pearl River estuary, “a barren island with hardly a house on it”.

That was how Hong Kong’s history began.

Perhaps it’s no exaggeration to conclude that if Zhoushan were taken over, there would have been no Hong Kong as we know it today.

For sure, Hong Kong would not have become a world-class metropolis had it remained part of China: its progress under the British rule is all the more apparent when it is compared with Zhoushan, still a sleepy town dwarfed by the greatness of neighboring Shanghai.

Yet Zhoushan does stand great potential. It helped Shanghai outstrip Hong Kong as the world’s No.1 container port since 2007 when Shanghai built the nation’s largest offshore, deep water berths on outlying islands leased from Zhoushan.

A 32.5-kilometer cross-sea bridge serves the berths in the heart of the East China Sea.

Beijing has also replicated all the tailor-made policies for the Shanghai free trade zone and made Zhoushan, under the jurisdiction of Ningbo most of the time, the fourth national pilot zone for economic reforms.

Hong Kong shipping magnate Tung Chao-yung hailed from Zhoushan. His elder son Tung Chee-hwa became the city’s first chief executive in 1997.

“Why hadn’t the British occupied more land, like the entire Guangdong?”

That question was in the mind of many defectors and refugees amid the mass exodus when mainland China fell to Mao Zedong in 1949 and throughout the Cultural Revolution.

Under the hail of bullets from the Chinese soldiers, many of the refugees, who suffered from famine, poverty or political prosecution, risked their lives by having themselves smuggled on makeshift sampans or swimming across the Shenzhen River to reach Hong Kong for freedom.

Together with their descendants born in Hong Kong, the number of those who fled China is around 1-2 million, according to various estimates.

If Britain had annexed more land, not just a tiny Hong Kong, but the entire Guangdong, or even more areas in southern China, many of these refugees, mostly from Guangdong and Fujian, probably wouldn’t have fled across hundreds or even thousands of miles to seek a new and better life in the British colony.

They were granted Hong Kong residency under the colonial government’s “Touch Base” policy when calamities, either natural or man-made, ravaged the mainland.

Thus, these people – with haunting memories of what they had been through and a common phobia about communism – became hardcore advocates of democracy, and the original members of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic camp.

Commentator Chip Tsao once wrote that Britain was genuinely benign given the fact that they merely took Hong Kong island and the Kowloon peninsula while the much vaster New Territories were just leased for 99 years.

“If London had wanted more land after the war, the cowardly Daoguang (道光) Emperor in Beijing’s Forbidden City would have agreed in toto, and, the same if Britons wanted to lease New Territories for 300 years, Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧) and her puppet emperor Guangxu (光緒) wouldn’t have had any second thought,” Tsao wrote.

Frederick Lugard, Hong Kong’s 14th governor, once proposed to the Colonial Office to return Weihaiwei (威海衛), the easternmost port city in Shandong province, to the Qing to make the lease of New Territories perpetual. London never replied.

The reason why Hong Kong’s reunification with China became inevitable was the expiry of the lease; without the New Territories, the city would never be able to support itself.

One wonders if Lugard’s suggestion were adopted, Hong Kong’s 1997 eventuality could have had another scenario.

London didn’t return Weihaiwei until 1930. Instead, out of deep distrust of locals, the colonial government drew recruits from Weihaiwei after World War I to bolster the ranks of the Hong Kong police to garrison the Government House and the Peak.

The British preferred Weihaiwei recruits because they could not speak Cantonese and thus were unable to forge ties with locals. They proved to be reliable at a time of tumult.

Among them was a man surnamed Leung who was assigned to patrol the Government House and Victoria Peak. Later he raised his own family and settled down permanently in Hong Kong.

In 1954, he had a second child, a son. He named his son Leung Chun-ying.

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Signing of the Treaty of Nanking which saw Hong Kong Island’s permanent cession. Photo: Wikipedia

A bird’s eye view of today’s Zhoushan, a small, quiet city known for seafood and beaches. If London had chosen the place as its colony, there would have been no Hong Kong. Photo:

EJ Insight writer