How did the British rule Hong Kong?

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1997. How it was actually run is rarely discussed, especially nowadays. Let’s look at some key features of the British administration in the early 20th century (1900 – 1941) before it was captured by the Japanese. 

The first point is that government in this period was mainly led by the executive branch, i.e. the Governor. The Governor was the president of councils and had the right to appoint and dismiss members of the legislative and executive council. Governor-led government secretaries made and proposed all bills and policies, while councils played merely consultative and not binding roles. Ultimately, legislation was proposed, approved and passed by the executive branch. Then it was ‘rubber-stamped’ by the legislative council.

The executive branch also had enormous power spanning a vast range of areas. The Governor exercised tremendous judicial powers by having the power to dismiss and appoint judges and grant amnesty to prisoners. Being the Commander-in-chief of the British force in Hong Kong, the Governor was also in charge of military and foreign affairs. There was no separation of powers for smooth administration. It is fair to say that the government was led by the executive and was a ‘one branch band’.

Secondly, and a result, the government chronically lacked legitimacy due to the nature of the British colonial government. At that time, 98% of the population were Chinese and only 2% were foreigners. Also, it was the early years of the British government officially taking over the whole administration. It is expected that local Chinese did not trust the British colonial government. What is more, the reason the British government occupied Hong Kong is that China lost a war against the British. In the minds of the Chinese in Hong Kong, the British were enemies that had invaded their motherland; simply put, some Chinese in Hong Kong hated the British administration. 

The local Chinese did not feel that the Governor cared about them. The Letters patent, Royal instructions and Colonial Regulations guaranteed the Governor’s ruling power. This means that he was not empowered by the general public. The Governor was also nominated by, thus answerable to, the British Prime Minister, and not the people. It was simply impossible for a local Chinese to relate to or feel represented by the government. 

Nor were British administration willing to let locals participate in the governance in any meaningful sense. Elections were only held in one council, the Urban Council, and only for 2 of the 13 seats. It was also hard for local Chinese to actually be inside the administration, as shown by the lack of Chinese personnel. Local Chinese had no representation in the government who could voice their demands. Officials were usually British merchants. The civil service was also monopolised by British people with key positions all occupied by British people. 

Front Street, Hong Kong, 1900. Credit: R. Y. Young

The low legitimacy of the British colonial administration led to riots and strikes in the early years. For example, there was the Seamen’s Strike in 1922 and the Guangdong Hong Kong General Strike in 1925. The British administration also suffered ineffective implementation of policies as the local Chinese simply did not support the policies. For instance, the local inhabitants in the New Territories firmly resisted the UK’s Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. In 1923, they strongly resisted the policy regulating the building of houses. All these incidents forced the British administration to come up with new measures to maintain peace and order. 

The first measure was indirect ruling featuring control. Western education was carried out and local Chinese had to learn English. The second measure was indirect ruling featuring conciliation. Small groups of influential Chinese elites and businessmen were allowed to participate in politics to smooth tensions regarding the lack of Chinese representatives. For instance, Mr Chow Shouson, an influential Chinese man, was a consultant and mediator for the government. The government also placed heavy emphasis on these people’s opinions as they understand the local culture better. The local Chinese’s resentment towards western officials was mitigated in this way. The government also set up channels to listen to the needs of the local Chinese. For example, in 1926, Heung Yee Kuk was set up to deal with affairs in the New Territories. The British colonial government hoped that the local Chinese would feel valued and their disobedience would reduce. Other conciliatory measures were implemented, with permission given for firecrackers to be set off in the New Territories during the Lunar New Year as one illustration of how the British administration would avoid meddling in the Chinese traditional lifestyle. In addition, all male indigenous residents were allowed to own a piece of land in the New Territories, another measure by the British administration to please the local Chinese. 

Hong Kong Waterfront c1910. Credit: Mee Fong Studio

One final and striking feature of the early British colonial administration is that most measures discriminated against local Chinese. Discrimination was serious within the government. As mentioned above, local Chinese had no representation in the government as officials were usually foreigners. In the civil service, British civil servants had higher salaries and better benefits compared to Chinese civil servants of the same rank. 

In socio-economic policies, discrimination was equally clear. For example, the Peak District Reservation Ordinance restricted local Chinese from living in the Peak District which had a cooler temperature and excellent views of the city. Clubs such as The Hong Kong Club and Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club only served whites. Perhaps most strikingly, English was the only official language and the legal system was all in English. As a result, local Chinese would be greatly disadvantaged in trials as they could not even understand the language. It is shown that most policies were highly discriminating against local Chinese. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena, History in Politics Writer

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