Archaeological studies support human presence in the Chek Lap Kok area (now Hong Kong International Airport) from 35,000 to 39,000 years ago and on Sai Kung Peninsula from 6,000 years ago.
Wong Tei Tung and Three Fathoms Cove are the earliest sites of human habitation in Hong Kong during the Paleolithic Period. It is believed that the Three Fathom Cove was a river-valley settlement and Wong Tei Tung was a lithic manufacturing site. Excavated Neolithic artefacts suggested cultural differences from the Longshan culture of northern China and settlement by the Che people, prior to the migration of the Baiyue (modern-day Viets) to Hong Kong. Eight petroglyphs, which dated to the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 BC - 1066 BC) in China, were discovered on the surrounding islands.
In 214 BC, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a centralised China, conquered the Baiyue tribes in Jiaozhi (modern-day Liangguang region and Vietnam) and incorporated the area of Hong Kong into his imperial China for the first time. Hong Kong proper was assigned to the Nanhai commandery (modern-day Nanhai District), near the commandery's capital city Panyu.
After a brief period of centralisation and collapse of the Qin dynasty, the area of Hong Kong was consolidated under the Kingdom of Nanyue (Nam Viet), founded by general Zhao Tuo in 204 BC. When Nanyue lost the Han-Nanyue War in 111 BC, Hong Kong came under the Jiaozhi commandery of the Han dynasty. Archaeological evidence indicates an increase of population and flourish of salt production. The Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb on the Kowloon Peninsula is believed to have been built as a burial site during the Han dynasty.
From the Han dynasty to the early Tang dynasty, Hong Kong was a part of Bao'an County. In the Tang dynasty, modern-day Guangzhou (Canton) flourished as an international trading centre. In 736, the Emperor Xuanzong of Tang established a military stronghold in Tuen Mun to strengthen defence of the coastal area. The nearby Lantau Island was a salt production centre and salt smuggler riots occasionally broke out against the government. In c. 1075, The first village school, Li Ying College, was established around 1075 AD in modern-day New Territories by the Northern Song dynasty. During their war against the Mongols, the imperial court of Southern Song was briefly stationed at modern-day Kowloon City (the Sung Wong Toi site) before their ultimate defeat by the Mongols at the Battle of Yamen. The Mongols then established their dynastic court and governed Hong Kong for 97 years.
From the mid-Tang dynasty to the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Hong Kong was a part of Dongguan County (東莞縣/ 東官縣). During the Ming dynasty, the area was transferred to Xin'an County (新安縣). The indigenous inhabitants at that time consisted of several ethnicities such as Punti, Hakka, Tanka and Hoklo.
The earliest European visitor on record was Jorge Álvares, a Portuguese explorer, who arrived in 1513. Having established a trading post in a site they called "Tamão" in Hong Kong waters, Portuguese merchants commenced with regular trading in southern China. Subsequent military clashes between China and Portugal, however, led to the expulsion of all Portuguese merchants from southern China.
Since the 14th century, the Ming court had enforced the maritime prohibition laws that strictly forbade all private maritime activities in order to prevent contact with foreigners by sea. When the Manchu Qing dynasty took over China, Hong Kong was directly affected by the Great Clearance decree of the Kangxi Emperor, who ordered the evacuation of coastal areas of Guangdong from 1661 to 1669. Over 16,000 inhabitants of Xin'an County including those in Hong Kong were forced to migrate inland; only 1,648 of those who had evacuated subsequently returned.
British Crown Colony: 1842–1941
In 1839, threats by the imperial court of Qing to sanction opium imports caused diplomatic friction with the British Empire. Tensions escalated into the First Opium War. The Qing admitted defeat when British forces captured Hong Kong Island on 20 January 1841. The island was initially ceded under the Convention of Chuenpi as part of a ceasefire agreement between Captain Charles Elliot and Governor Qishan. A dispute between high-ranking officials of both countries, however, led to the failure of the treaty's ratification. On 29 August 1842, Hong Kong Island was formally ceded in perpetuity to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland under the Treaty of Nanking. The British officially established a Crown colony and founded the City of Victoria in the following year.
The population of Hong Kong Island was 7,450 when the Union Flag raised over Possession Point on 26 January 1841. It mostly consisted of Tanka fishermen and Hakka charcoal burners, whose settlements scattered along several coastal hamlets. In the 1850s, a large number of Chinese immigrants crossed the then-free border to escape from the Taiping Rebellion. Other natural disasters, such as flooding, typhoons and famine in mainland China would play a role in establishing Hong Kong as a place for safe shelter.
Further conflicts over the opium trade between Britain and Qing quickly escalated into the Second Opium War. Following the Anglo-French victory, the Crown Colony was expanded to include Kowloon Peninsula(south of Boundary Street) and Stonecutter's Island, both of which were ceded to the British in perpetuity under the Convention of Beijing in 1860.
In 1898, Britain obtained a 99-year lease from Qing under the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, in which Hong Kong obtained a 99-year lease of Lantau Island, the area north of Boundary Street in Kowloon up to Shenzhen River and over 200 other outlying islands.
Hong Kong soon became a major entrepôt thanks to its free port status, attracting new immigrants to settle from both China and Europe. The society, however, remained racially segregated and polarised under early British colonial policies. Despite the rise of a British-educated Chinese upper-class by the late-19th century, race laws such as the Peak Reservation Ordinance prevented ethnic Chinese in Hong Kong from acquiring houses in reserved areas such as Victoria Peak. At this time, the majority of the Chinese population in Hong Kong had no political representation in the British colonial government. The British governors did rely, however, on a small number of Chinese elites, including Sir Kai Ho and Robert Hotung, who served as ambassadors and mediators between the government and local population.
In 1904, the United Kingdom established the world's first border and immigration control; all residents of Hong Kong were given citizenship as Citizens of United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC).
Hong Kong continued to experience modest growth during the first half of the 20th century. The University of Hong Kong was established in 1911 as the territory's oldest higher education institute. While there had been an exodus of 60,000 residents for fear of a German attack on the British colony during the First World War, Hong Kong remained peaceful. Its population increased from 530,000 in 1916 to 725,000 in 1925 and reached 1.6 million by 1941.
In 1925, Cecil Clementi became the 17th Governor of Hong Kong. Fluent in Cantonese and without a need for translator, Clementi introduced the first ethnic Chinese, Shouson Chow, into the Executive Council as an unofficial member. Under Clementi's tenure, Kai Tak Airport entered operation as RAF Kai Tak and several aviation clubs. In 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out when the Japanese Empire expanded its territories from northeastern China into the mainland proper. To safeguard Hong Kong as a freeport, Governor Geoffry Northcote declared the Crown Colony as a neutral zone.
Japanese occupation: 1941–45
As part of its military campaign in Southeast Asia during Second World War, the Japanese army moved south from Guangzhou of mainland China and attacked Hong Kong in 1941. on 8 December 1941. Crossing the border at Shenzhen River on 8 December, the Battle of Hong Kong lasted for 18 days when British and Canadian forces held onto Hong Kong Island. Unable to defend against intensifying Japanese air and land bombardments, they eventually surrendered control of Hong Kong on 25 December 1941. The Governor of Hong Kong was captured and taken as a prisoner of war. This day is regarded by the locals as "Black Christmas".
During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the Japanese army committed atrocities against civilians and POWs, such as the St. Stephen's College massacre. Local residents also suffered widespread food shortages, limited rationing and hyper-inflation arising from the forced exchange of currency from Hong Kong dollars to Japanese military banknotes. The initial ratio of 2:1 was gradually devalued to 4:1 and ownership of Hong Kong dollars was declared illegal and punishable by harsh torture. Due to starvation and forced deportation for slave labour to mainland China, the population of Hong Kong had dwindled from 1.6 million in 1941 to 600,000 in 1945, when the United Kingdom resumed control of the colony on 30 August 1945.
Resumption of British rule and industrialisation: 1945–97
Hong Kong's population recovered quickly after the war, as a wave of skilled migrants from the Republic of China moved in to seek refuge from the Chinese Civil War. When the Communist Party eventually took full control of mainland China in 1949, even more skilled migrants fled across the open border for fear of persecution. Many newcomers, especially those who had been based in the major port cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou, established corporations and small- to medium-sized businesses and shifted their base operations to British Hong Kong. The establishment of a socialist state in China (PR China) on 1 October 1949 caused the British colonial government to reconsider Hong Kong's open border to mainland China. In 1951, a boundary zone was demarked as a buffer zone against potential military attacks from communist China. Border posts along the north of Hong Kong began operation in 1953 to regulate the movement of people and goods into and out of the territory.
In the 1950s, Hong Kong became the first of the Four Asian Tiger economies under rapid industrialisation driven by textile exports, manufacturing industries and re-exports of goods to China. As the population grew, with labour costs remaining low, living standards began to rise steadily. The construction of the Shek Kip Mei Estate in 1953 marked the beginning of the public housing estate programme to provide shelter for the less privileged and to cope with the influx of immigrants.
Under Sir Murray MacLehose, 25th Governor of Hong Kong (1971–82), a series of reforms improved the public services, environment, housing, welfare, education and infrastructure of Hong Kong. MacLehose was British Hong Kong's longest-serving governor and, by the end of his tenure, had become one of the most popular and well-known figures in the Crown Colony. MacLehose laid the foundation for Hong Kong to establish itself as a key global city in the 1980s and early 1990s.
To resolve traffic congestion and to provide a more reliable means of crossing the Victoria Harbour, a rapid transit railway system (metro), the MTR, was planned from the 1970s onwards. The Island Line (Hong Kong Island), Kwun Tong Line (Kowloon Peninsula and East Kowloon) and Tsuen Wan Line (Kowloon and urban New Territories) opened in the early 1980s.
In 1983, the Hong Kong dollar left its 16:1 peg with the Pound sterling and switched to the current US-HK Dollar peg. Hong Kong's competitiveness in manufacturing gradually declined due to rising labour and property costs, as well as new development in southern China under the Open Door Policy introduced in 1978 which opened up China to foreign business. Nevertheless, towards the early 1990s, Hong Kong had established itself as a global financial centre along with London and New York, a regional hub for logistics and freight, one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia and the world's exemplar of Laissez-faire market policy.
The Hong Kong question
In 1971, the Republic of China (Taiwan)'s permanent seat on the United Nations was transferred to the People's Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong's status as a recognised colony became terminated in 1972 under the request of PRC. Facing the uncertain future of Hong Kong and expiry of land lease of New Territories beyond 1997, Governor MacLehose raised the question in the late 1970s.
The British Nationality Act 1981 reclassifed Hong Kong into a British Dependent Territory amid the reorganisation of global territories of the British Empire. All residents of Hong Kong became British Dependent Territory Citizens (BDTC). Diplomatic negotiations began with China and eventually concluded with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Both countries agreed to transfer Hong Kong's sovereignty to the China on 1 July 1997, when Hong Kong would remain autonomous as a special administrative region and be able to retain its free-market economy, British common law through the Hong Kong Basic Law, independent representation in international organisations (e.g. WTO and WHO), treaty arrangements and policy-making except foreign diplomacy and military defence.
It stipulated that Hong Kong would retain its laws and be guaranteed a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years after the transfer. The Hong Kong Basic Law, based on English law, would serve as the constitutional document after the transfer. It was ratified in 1990. Nevertheless, the expiry of the 1898 lease on the New Territories in 1997 created problems for business contracts, property leases and confidence among foreign investors.
Handover and Special Administrative Region status
Transfer of sovereignty
On 1 July 1997, the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People's Republic of China took place, officially marking the end of Hong Kong's 156 years under British colonial governance. As the largest remaining colony of the United Kingdom, the loss of Hong Kong effectively represented the end of the British Empire. This transfer of sovereignty made Hong Kong the first special administrative region of China. Tung Chee-Hwa, a pro-Beijing business tycoon, was elected Hong Kong's first Chief Executive by a selected electorate of 800 in a televised programme.
Tung Chee-Wah: 1997-2003
Soon after Hong Kong's transfer to PR China, the territory has suffered coincidentally an economic double-blow: Asian Financial Crisis and the H5N1 avian flu pandemic. The then-Financial Secretary, Sir Donald Tsang, adopted a radical measure to make use of British Hong Kong foreign currency reserves and restored Hong Kong's financial stability. In December 1997, officials had to destroy 1.4 million livestock in order to contain the H5 virus from spreading.
Despite a recovering economy from the Asian Financial Crisis, mismanagement of Tung's housing policy triggered a housing market crisis in 1998, disrupting market supply and sent properties prices tumbling until 2002. This caused many homeowners to become bankrupt due to negative equity.
In 1998, Hong Kong moved its international airport from Kai Tak to an artificially-reclaimed island north of Lantau Island. Construction of this new airport began under the British Rose Garden Project and was completed in May 1998.
Chris Patten's democratic reform of the Legislative Council Election in 1994 was abruptly terminated when Hong Kong transferred to PR China in 1997. In 1995, PR China set up a parallel "Provisional Council" of pro-Beijing members in Shenzhen. This Provisional Legislative Council, lacking legislative or constitutional power, moved into Hong Kong and completed its term in 1999. The Legislative Council resumed its full function after the 1999 election under pre-reformed rules; one of the prominent tasks was to complete legislation of articles in the Hong Kong Basic Law, constitutional document of the territory.
Despite the unopposed re-election of Tung in July 2002, distrust of PR China remained throughout Tung's first term as Chief Executive. In 2003, Hong Kong was gravely affected by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The World Health Organization reported 1,755 infected and 299 deaths in Hong Kong. Economic activities slowed down and schools were closed for weeks at the height of SARS epidemic. An estimated 380 million Hong Kong dollars (US$48.9 million) in contracts were lost as a result of the epidemic.
In May 2003, the government's attempt to legislate Article 23 (National Security) of the Basic Law aroused strong suspicion among Hong Kong citizens. This Article would grant Hong Kong's police force right of access to private property on grounds of 'safeguarding national security', but without court warrants. Coupled with years of economic hardships and discontent of Tung's pro-Beijing stance, a mass demonstration broke out on 1 July 2003. This demonstration hastened the resignations of two government ministers and, eventually, that of Tung on 10 March 2005.
Sir Donald Tsang: 2005-2012
Sir Donald Tsang, then-Chief Secretary for Administration and ex-official of the British Hong Kong government, entered the 2005 election uncontested and was appointed by Beijing as the second Chief Executive of Hong Kong on 21 June 2005. In 2006, Tsang introduced food safety procedures to Hong Kong in light of loose vetting standards, contamination and counterfeit food issues of PR China.
Tsang went on to win a second term in office following the 2007 Chief Executive election under managed voting. As a result of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, Tsang's government rolled out a package of financial stimulus of HK$11 billion and a depositor guarantee scheme to safeguard Hong Kong dollar savings in bank accounts. Hong Kong narrowed avoided a technical recession from the ongoing crisis.
In 2009, Hong Kong hosted the 5th East Asian Games and nine national teams competed in it. The Games were the first and largest international multi-sport event ever organised and hosted by the city. Major infrastructure and tourist projects also began under Sir Tsang's second term, including the Ngong Ping Cable Car, Tian Tan Buddha and the West Kowloon Cultural District. The most controversial, however, was the high-speed railway link connecting Hong Kong and neighbouring cities of PR China; as of 2016, the project has suffered numerous delays, surging labour and material costs and dispute over immigration procedures.
During Tsang's second term, he initiated modest reforms in areas of education, environment and food safety. He concluded his term, however, when a local news media uncovered evidence of him receiving favours and hospitality from business tycoons on various occasions. This resulted in further discovery of bribery in Tsang's government; then-Chief Secretary of Administration, Rafael Hui, was convicted of corruption in 2014.
Leung Chun-ying: since 2012
Main article: Hong Kong–Mainland conflict
3 candidates stood for the 2012 Chief Executive Election, including one from the Democratic Party. A selected electorate of 1,200 pro-Beijing members constituted the election committee; Leung Chun-ying won 689 votes and was appointed Chief Executive on 1 July by PR China.
During Leung's term, the government completed legislation of Anti-trust and Competition Ordinance and introduced minimum wage in 2015. Political debates, however, have centred themselves predominately on universal suffrage and education reform. The government's proposed National Education curriculum in 2014 attracted polarising reactions across Hong Kong's public and a draft bill was eventually withdrawn. Reactions from PR China, including the 2014 White Paper on Hong Kong, attracted worldwide allegations of Beijing's intervention into Hong Kong's high-degree autonomy. The most contentious issue was China's outright disregard of its commitment to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration in written text. This has fuelled up a number of mass protests and the most prominent one was the Occupy Central (later termed "Umbrella") movement in September to December 2014.
Hong Kong's high-degree autonomy, along with neutrality of press and media, judicial independence and freedom of speech and publication, have at times been scrutinised. With continued distrust of PR China's government, notable events such as violent attack on journalists, increasing level of press self-censorship, alleged extraterritorial abduction of anti-PR China publishers and covert intervention into Hong Kong's educational, political and independent institutions have posed challenges to the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement. In the 2016 Legislative Council Election, there were reports of discrepancies in the electorate registry, which contains ghost registrations across constituencies, as well as political intervention to strip pro-Independence individuals of their right to stand in elections and alleged death threats to election candidates.
Social tension has heightened during Leung's term, with many Hongkongers believing that PR China increased their efforts to exert influence on everyday life in Hong Kong. The territory currently delegates control of PR Chinese immigrants, as well as issue of visitor permits, to Chinese authorities. On the first day of Chinese New Year 2016, riots targeting the police force broke out. The most recent survey in 2016 (with a sample base of 573) in Hong Kong shows that 17.8% respondents considered themselves as "Chinese citizens", whereas 41.9% considered themselves purely as "citizens of Hong Kong"