Today’s Hong Kong is best known for its sprawling skyscrapers and role as a bustling financial hub and regional commercial channel off the southern coast of mainland China.
But the territory was once a quiet backwater of rural villages and fishing communities, where the mountainous terrain dominated scant human settlements.
Twenty-five years since the city was returned to China by the British colonial power, here are the key points of its evolution:
– Ancient history –
The remains of cemeteries and the earliest rock carvings show human life in Hong Kong since the Stone Age.
The territory is thought to have entered the fold of the Chinese empire under the Han dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD.
An increasing number of Han Chinese from the mainland began to settle in Hong Kong, along with boat dweller communities thought to also originate in southern China.
– commercial boom –
Hong Kong’s main sheltered port became a place to replenish supplies for merchant ships traveling the maritime silk road between Asia, Africa and the Middle East, flourishing around the 7th century.
In addition to silk, China exported porcelain and tea and received everything from spices to plants and textiles.
Hong Kong’s outlying islands were also a haven for Chinese pirates: its current territory includes 260 islands, many of which are uninhabited.
– European arrivals –
Portuguese, Dutch, and French traders arrived on China’s southern coast in the 1500s, and Portugal established a base in Macau, which borders Hong Kong.
But in the 18th century, China imposed restrictions on Europeans in an attempt to contain their influence.
Britain got angry after an imperial edict banned its opium trade from India to China, which had led to the spread of the addiction.
After the Chinese authorities seized a vast loot of drugs, Britain attacked in 1840 and reached northern China, threatening Beijing, in the first opium war.
To make peace, China agreed to cede the island of Hong Kong to Great Britain in 1841.
The Kowloon Peninsula followed in 1860 after a second Opium War and Britain expanded north into the Rural New Territories in 1898, leasing the area for 99 years.
– British rules –
Hong Kong was part of the British Empire until 1997, when the lease on the New Territories expired and the entire city was returned to China.
Under British rule, Hong Kong developed into a commercial and financial center boasting one of the busiest ports in the world.
Anti-colonial sentiment fueled the riots in 1967 which led to some social and political reforms: when it was returned to China, the city had a partially elected legislature and maintained an independent judiciary.
Hong Kong exploded when China opened its economy in the late 1970s, becoming a gateway between the ascendant power and the rest of the world.
– Return to China –
After lengthy negotiations, including between former leader Deng Xiaoping and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the two sides signed Hong Kong’s future handover in 1984.
The Sino-British statement stated that Hong Kong would be a special administrative region of China and would maintain its freedoms and lifestyle for 50 years after the July 1, 1997 handover date.
Beijing claims Hong Kong’s One Country, Two Systems model remains intact.
But critics, including Britain and other Western powers, say China has gutted the city’s unique freedoms, especially in the wake of massive protests for democracy that erupted in 2019.