China Reluctantly Cedes Hong Kong To Britain

Today on January 20, 1841, China cedes Hong Kong to Britain by signing the Chuenpi Convention.

The Convention of Chuenpi was the first step towards ending the First Opium War. This First Anglo-Chinese War was a military conflict over trade and administration of the region. For centuries, China provided Europeans with many luxury goods such as silk, porcelain, and tea. And, Britain desperately wanted control over these important resources. The British East India Company aggressively tried to impose colonial influence and control over the region. In retaliation, Chinese authorities imposed strict rules that limited trade to the commercial port of Canton. This cut off direct access to mainland China. To make matters worse, the Chinese refused to accept any payment other than silver coins. Pushed into a serious trade deficit, Britain also faced a serious shortage of silver.

By the Nineteenth Century, the British Empire was importing massive amounts of tea every year. This represented a substantial portion of the increasing trade deficit. As a result, colonial merchants began offering opium as an alternative form of payment. However, opium was strictly forbidden in China. By the 1830s, it’s estimated the majority of young Chinese males were addicted to smoking opium. In 1839, the Chinese Emperor ordered the confiscation and destruction of opium and related goods. Tensions quickly escalated between British merchants and Chinese authorities. A full-scale war inevitably broke out after a naval battle on the Pearl River. On November 3, 1839, the Royal Navy attacked local Qing ships who were heavily outmatched. Britain immediately moved to occupy the sparsely inhabited island of Hong Kong.

After numerous defeats, the Qing Government reluctantly entered into peace negotiations. This two-year conflict proved disastrous for China. On January 20, 1841, the two parties signed an armistice agreement at the Chuenpi Convention. As a major concession, China ceded Hong Kong and its surrounding territory to the United Kingdom. In the following year, both parties signed the Treaty of Nanking, which formally ended the First Opium War. The British subsequently established a flourishing colony and an important regional military base. Since then Hong Kong has served as a major trading center between the east and west. In many respects, it acted as the gateway for Europeans to mainland China. Hong Kong remained under British control until it was peacefully handed back to China on July 1, 1997. The two sides agreed to the turnover in exchange for a Chinese pledge to preserve Hong Kong’s capitalist system.

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