a brief-ish history
During the first part of the 19th century the UK’s stores of gold and silver were being depleted (in effect contracting the country’s money supply) to pay for tea imported from China. London suggested to Beijing that they barter opium from the British colony India instead. Beijing sensibly refused. So in 1841 the British army invaded China to force the change. The UK seized Hong Kong to use as a staging area and kept it once China submitted to its demands. During a second Opium War (1856-60), launched when China again balked at the mass shipment of narcotics into its territory, the UK seized more land.
In 1898, China granted the UK a 99-year lease over the area it occupied. This legalized the status of Hong Kong, which remained under the practical control of the “hongs,” a newer form of the old British opium companies, for much of the 20th century.
In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping made it clear that the lease would not be renewed but that Hong Kong would remain a Special Administrative Region, with substantial autonomy, for fifty years after its return to China on June 30, 1997. (For its part, the UK parliament decided Hong Kongers would find the climate of the British Isles inhospitable. So these soon-to-be-former British subjects would be issued identity cards but no other legal protections–citizenship, for example–within the Commonwealth on the handover. This is a whole other story.)
Hong Kong’s importance today…
The conventional wisdom at that time was that while Hong Kong China’s main goal in triggering the return was to set the stage for the eventual reintegration of (much larger) Taiwan, where the armies of Chiang Kaishek fled after their defeat by Mao.
Today Hong Kong is much more important, in my view, than it was in the 1980s. Due, ironically, to the sound, and well-understood worldwide, legal framework imposed by the UK, Hong Kong has become the main jumping-off point for multinationals investing in China. It’s also an international banking center, a transportation hub and a major tourist destination. Most important for investors, however, is that its equity market not only has greater integrity than Wall Street but is also the easiest venue to buy and sell Chinese stocks (Fidelity’s international brokerage service is the best in the US for online access, I think, even though the prices in my account are invariably a day–sometimes three–old).
Mr. Trump has begun to weaponize US-based finance by denying Chinese companies access to US capital markets, US portfolio investors and, ultimately, the dollar-based financial system. China’s obvious response is accelerate its build up of Hong Kong as a viable alternative in all three areas. As with the tariff wars, Trump’s ill thought out strategy will most likely galvanize these efforts.
Hong Kong has 27 years left to go as an SAR. For some reason, however, Xi seems to have decided earlier in 2019 to begin to exert mainland control today rather than adhering to the return agreement. His trial balloon was legislation under which political protesters in Hong Kong whose statements/actions are legal there, but crimes elsewhere in China, could be arrested and extradited to the mainland for prosecution. This sparked the rioting. These protests do have deeper underlying causes which are similar to those affecting many areas in the US.
…continue to be an issue
The recent change in Hong Kong’s stock listing rules (to allow companies whose owners have special, super voting power shares) and the subsequent fund raising by Alibaba seem to me to show that Beijing wants Hong Kong to become the center for international capital-raising by Chinese companies. From this perspective, Xi’s failure to minimize disruptive protests by withdrawing the extradition legislation quickly is hard to understand.
One might argue that Xi, like Trump, is trying to reestablish an older order, purely for the political advantage it gives. In China’s case it entails reviving the Communist Party’s traditional power base, the dysfunctional state-owned enterprises that Deng began to marginalize in the late 1970s with his move toward a market-based economy (i.e., “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”). I find it hard to believe that Beijing is as impractical and dysfunctional as Washington, but who knows.
My bottom line: I think the Hong Kong situation is worth monitoring carefully as a gauge of how aggressively China is going to exploit the opening Trump policies have haplessly given it to replace the US as the center of world commerce–sooner than anyone might have dreamed in 2016.