Six: History and development

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After three decades of extraordinary economic growth in China, few would dispute that Hong Kong’s future is enmeshed with what happens there. Indeed, even in periods of history when China was weak, unstable or isolated, developments in China have shaped much of Hong Kong’s economic, social, political and even environmental developments. Key events in Chinese history—the nineteenth-century Opium Wars and the ceding of Hong Kong Island to the British, the Xinhai Revolution and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty quite early in the twentieth century, the Japanese invasion during World War II, the Communist victory in 1949 and the country’s economic opening starting in the late 1970s— have greatly influenced events in Hong Kong. Through a brief account of Hong Kong’s history, economy and culture, this chapter shows some of the ways in which these external events and forces have shaped life in the territory, including its halting progress toward sustainable development. Historically speaking, the goal of sustainability has not been very influential in Hong Kong; the concept of protecting natural capital was mostly absent during much of its history. What is more, the level of respect for different socio-economic classes and genders that is necessary for truly sustainable development to be realised has also been absent. While major events in Hong Kong’s history have often occurred in response to developments in China, it is also important to observe that Hong Kong has had a role in shaping modern Chinese history. Historians identify the important role played by Hong Kong in supporting the Qing Dynasty in the late nineteenth century by contributing to relief projects and by facilitating the translation and dispersal of Western knowledge in China (Fok 1990, 1–14; Carroll 2006, 523–8); in supporting opposition to the Qing Dynasty in the early twentieth century, particularly by serving as an operational base for revolutionaries (Fok 1990, 53–96); in providing financial support to villages in Guangdong Province; in supporting Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation during the 1930s and 1940s (Fok 1990, 118–35); and in acting as a gateway for investment and trade that facilitated China’s opening to the world from the mid-1970s.

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