Thursday, January 12, 2006

Shenzhen: Shadows of History

Today, Shenzhen is known to all as one of the most modern cities in China, and perhaps the world. It has clearly benefited from being at Hong Kong's doorstep, but it has now taken on a life of its own, and has become a thriving, bubbling, if not always wholesome, metropolis. Its middle class is visibly springing into prominence (as I could see from my visit to the crowded Wal-Mart Sam's Club there a couple weekends back) in stores, roads, cars, hotels and homes.

As most people know, this enormous city was, a quarter-century ago, a small, irrelevant fishing village that just happened to be on the border with Hong Kong. But few people seem to know that it, too, might have once been part of Hong Kong's New Territories. I shall now quote to you a letter from Downing Street, specifically from the Secretary of State, Joseph Chamberlain, to Governor Blake:
Downing Street
6th January 1899


I am now in a position to communicate to you the views of Her Majesty's Government as to the future administration of the territory which, under the Convention between the United Kingdom and China of the 9th June last, has been added to the Colony of Hongkong, and to convey to you their instructions as to the steps to be taken for its formal occupation in the name of Her Majesty the Queen.

I have in the first place to enclose an Order of Her Majesty in Council dated the 20th October last and declaring the territories within the limits and for the terms described in the above Convention to be part and parcel of the Colony of Hongkong. You will cause this Order in Council, which has not at present been made public, to be published in the Colony at as early a date as possible.

You have already become acquainted with the general aspects of the questions involved in the transfer of this territory, and it is unnecessary therefore that I should here dwell upon them at any length. There are three points which Her Majesty's Government have regarded as of special importance in the preliminary stages of the negotiations. They relate to Kowloon city, the northern boundary of the leased territory, and the collection of the Chinese duties on opium.

The questions of the civil administration of Kowloon city and of the extension of the northern frontier so as to include the town of Sham Chun [italics are mine - Ed.] will require no immediate action on your part pending negotiations with the Chinese Government, but---while such negotiations are pending -- no time should be lost in giving attention to the third question, that of the prevention of smuggling into China and the collection of the Chinese Customs duties on opium. You will see that Her Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion, which -- if I understand right -- is your own conclusion also, that the only satisfactory solution of this question will be the establishment of some system whereby the Chinese customs duties on opium imported into China from Hongkong, including the newly added territory, shall be actually collected by the Government of Hongkong.
1899 was the high watermark of European imperialism in China and indeed, in the rest of the world. Britain, concerned by the land grabs by Germany and Russia in Northern China, had insisted on the 99 year lease of the New Territories as well as of the northern Chinese port of Weihaiwei. It clearly saw no problem in negotiating further for the inclusion of Shenzhen into the land lease, or even suggesting to the moribund Qing dynasty empire that it would run its opium customs station for it at the Hong Kong border (indeed, Sir Robert Hart, an Irishman, had run China's Imperial Customs service for almost four decades already).

But as Britain continued to press its claims for land, trouble was brewing in the north. The impunity with which foreign powers claimed Chinese lands had enraged popular opinion so much that the Boxer Rebellion was soon to break out in force.

And while Shenzhen almost became part of the British empire (it did not, thanks to Hay's suggestion of an Open Door Policy that did not require China to be sliced up by Imperial Powers like a Christmas turkey), the 99-year lease proposed by Britain on the New Territories had unknowingly set in motion the demise of British sovereignty in Hong Kong altogether. For while Hong Kong and Kowloon had been ceded to Britain in perpetuity, Hong Kong was eventually handed back to China based on the end date of the New Territories lease.

No comments: