Why did the UK agree to return Hong Kong to China in 1997? 🇬🇧🇭🇰🇨🇳

Read the Story

Show Top Comments

Dear Commentors, When commenting in /r/history remember we have rules against Current Politics (**Rule 2**) and a 20 year moratorium (**Rule 5**) Also, in reference to the previous sticky: Sticky Comments are almost never directed at the OP . . .if we thought the original post broke the rules, we wouldn’t have approved it to be visible in the first place. . .why do I have to explain these things? Sincerely, Your Jack-Booted Moderator.


This is one of those historical situations that are multi faceted. You are correct when asserting that the UK had the legal right to maintain some of the islands in the Hong Kong area while the majority of the territory returned to the PRC. The reason they returned the small islands along with the rest of Hong Kong has a few reasons. For one, the British government’s view on its empire had been shifting from one of heavy control to one that resembled a loose commonwealth (more what it is today). This shift in attitude began post-WW2 and by the 90s, the British Empire was seen as a relic of the past and that maintaining the Commonwealth was the most logical and cost-effective means of action. Hong Kong would have been an incredibly valuable part of the Commonwealth, but only if the Hong Kong island and Kowloon Peninsula (the most developed and populous regions) were kept. Given that those two main parts had to be given back, and also because the smaller islands that could have been kept required significant development, investment, and immigration of settlers, the future for the UK in that region seemed very expensive and improbable. Second, the PRC and UK don’t exactly see eye to eye when it comes to global politics and ideology. The PRC would have no issue attempting to asset some kind of dominance over the UK islands should they decide to keep them. This was a foreign policy fiasco that the UK decided to avoid by just giving the Chinese what they would eventually want. Hong Kong is in a vague legal limbo in terms of its territorial status. It officially became a special administrative region under the PRC. Hong Kong was granted a number of political privileges and freedoms not granted to other parts of China. However, the PRC granted these rights temporarily, and will re-evaluated Hong Kong’s status (along with nearby Macau) in 2047. Thus the UK government could foresee the political mess that could arise around territorial claims and projection in that region going into the future. The PRC’s growing power (military and economy) was a force the UK could see becoming a major threat and they decided to make a safe play for the long game. In short: UK saw those islands and not a worthwhile investment. They also wanted to avoid trouble with China Edit: Also, forgot to elaborate on this. By the late 90s the UK was in no position to contest the PRC’s growing hegemonic power in east-Asia. The days of the British Empire were long gone and the PRC was the new power in the region, a PRC military seizure of Hong Kong would have been easy. This is why the handover is seen by many as the end of the British Empire. On another note, thanks for the upvotes! Edit of edit: holy, thanks so much for the upvotes! Not bad for a first post!


The portions of Hong Kong that we had legal permanent claim to received most of their supplies (particularly fresh water) from the portions that would be given back. This meant that, unless the UK wanted to supply it themselves or build desalination infrastructure, Hong Kong would be without a source of clean water and other resources so it simply wasn’t logical to keep the territory as the PRC would rather see the island die than be outside of their China. Also fact of the matter is that China is a waxing power and Britain is a waning one. We do not have sufficient military might to hold Hong Kong alone and the world would be unlikely to support Britain in maintaining an overseas territory even with NATO’s defensive clauses. The only reason the PRC didn’t invade Hong Kong is likely due to the fact that there was the 99 year lease on greater Hong Kong so they knew that they would get it (and likely the rest of Hong Kong) without violence and diplomatic crisis. TL;DR: Britain had no choice. Holding the parts we had permanent claim to would be cruel to the people of Hong Kong, would be short lived, and would cost us more in the long run.


In 1982, Margaret Thatcher went to China to negotiate Hong Kong. During talks with Thatcher, China planned to invade and seize Hong Kong if the negotiations set off unrest in the colony. Thatcher later said that Deng told her bluntly that China could easily take Hong Kong by force, stating that “I could walk in and take the whole lot this afternoon”, to which she replied that “there is nothing I could do to stop you, but the eyes of the world would now know what China is like.” The British tried to keep a role on Hong Kong island, but after numerous rounds of negotiating realized China wasn’t going to accept that, and they knew that once China had the rest of Hong Kong, it would be trivially easy to take the rest and they never had a chance at fighting China. So they caved. In return, they avoided a major war with China (or rather, they avoided the spectacle of China taking all of Hong Kong and the UK looking and being absolutely powerless to stop it).


Well the British Empire took something by force and made the Chinese sign a treaty and the Chinese government made sure that the British understood that it regards these treaties forced upon China through a war as unequal treaties that must be abolished one way or the other. ​ It is indeed strange to think that because the British seized these territories from a country through a war and codify them, the other country cannot use war to threaten them back? The legal right to hold them is base on the concept that someone put a gun to your face and say sign it or else. If that is a legal right then so too is China pointing a gun and say give it back or else.