Economic History of Hong Kong

Catherine R. Schenk, University of Glasgow

Hong Kong’s economic and political history has been primarily determined by its geographical location.  The territory of Hong Kong is comprised of two main islands (Hong Kong Island and Lantau Island) and a mainland hinterland. It thus forms a natural geographic port for Guangdong province in Southeast China. In a sense, there is considerable continuity in Hong Kong’s position in the international economy since its origins were as a commercial entrepot for China’s regional and global trade, and this is still a role it plays today.  From a relatively unpopulated territory at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hong Kong grew to become one of the most important international financial centers in the world.  Hong Kong also underwent a rapid and successful process of industrialization from the 1950s that captured the imagination of economists and historians in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hong Kong from 1842 to 1949

After being ceded by China to the British under the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, the colony of Hong Kong quickly became a regional center for financial and commercial services based particularly around the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and merchant companies such as Jardine Matheson.  In 1841 there were only 7500 Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong and a handful of foreigners, but by 1859 the Chinese community was over 85,000 supplemented by about 1600 foreigners. The economy was closely linked to commercial activity, dominated by shipping, banking and merchant companies. Gradually there was increasing diversification to services and retail outlets to meet the needs of the local population, and also shipbuilding and maintenance linked to the presence of the British naval and merchant shipping.  There was some industrial expansion in the nineteenth century; notably sugar refining, cement and ice factories among the foreign sector, alongside smaller-scale local workshop manufactures. The mainland territory of Hong Kong was ceded to British rule by two further treaties in this period; Kowloon in 1860 and the New Territories in 1898.

Hong Kong was profoundly affected by the disastrous events in Mainland China in the inter-war period. After overthrow of the dynastic system in 1911, the Kuomintang (KMT) took a decade to pull together a republican nation-state.  The Great Depression and fluctuations in the international price of silver then disrupted China’s economic relations with the rest of the world in the 1930s. From 1937, China descended into the Sino-Japanese War.  Two years after the end of World War II, the civil war between the KMT and Chinese Communist Party pushed China into a downward economic spiral.  During this period, Hong Kong suffered from the slowdown in world trade and in China’s trade in particular.  However, problems on the mainland also diverted business and entrepreneurs from Shanghai and other cities to the relative safety and stability of the British colonial port of Hong Kong.

Post-War Industrialization

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the mainland began a process of isolation from the international economy, partly for ideological reasons and partly because of Cold War embargos on trade imposed first by the United States in 1949 and then by the United Nations in 1951.  Nevertheless, Hong Kong was vital to the international economic links that the PRC continued in order to pursue industrialization and support grain imports. Even during the period of self-sufficiency in the 1960s, Hong Kong’s imports of food and water from the PRC were a vital source of foreign exchange revenue that ensured Hong Kong’s usefulness to the mainland. In turn, cheap food helped to restrain rises in the cost of living in Hong Kong thus helping to keep wages low during the period of labor-intensive industrialization.

The industrialization of Hong Kong is usually dated from the embargoes of the 1950s.  Certainly, Hong Kong’s prosperity could no longer depend on the China trade in this decade.  However, as seen above, industry emerged in the nineteenth century and it began to expand in the interwar period. Nevertheless, industrialization accelerated after 1945 with the inflow of refugees, entrepreneurs and capital fleeing the civil war on the mainland. The most prominent example is immigrants from Shanghai who created the cotton spinning industry in the colony.  Hong Kong’s industry was founded in the textile sector in the 1950s before gradually diversifying in the 1960s to clothing, electronics, plastics and other labor-intensive production mainly for export.

The economic development of Hong Kong is unusual in a variety of respects.  First, industrialization was accompanied by increasing numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) rather than consolidation.  In 1955, 91 percent of manufacturing establishments employed fewer than one hundred workers, a proportion that increased to 96.5 percent by 1975. Factories employing fewer than one hundred workers accounted for 42 percent of Hong Kong’s domestic exports to the U.K. in 1968, amounting to HK$1.2 billion.  At the end of 2002, SMEs still amounted to 98 percent of enterprises, providing 60 percent of total private employment.

Second, until the late 1960s, the government did not engage in active industrial planning. This was partly because the government was preoccupied with social spending on housing large flows of immigrants, and partly because of an ideological sympathy for free market forces.  This means that Hong Kong fits outside the usual models of Asian economic development based on state-led industrialization (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan) or domination of foreign firms (Singapore) or large firms with close relations to the state (Japan, South Korea). Low taxes, lax employment laws, absence of government debt, and free trade are all pillars of the Hong Kong experience of economic development.

In fact, of course, the reality was very different from the myth of complete laissez-faire. The government’s programs of public housing, land reclamation, and infrastructure investment were ambitious. New industrial towns were built to house immigrants, provide employment and aid industry.  The government subsidized industry indirectly through this public housing, which restrained rises in the cost of living that would have threatened Hong Kong’s labor-cost advantage in manufacturing. The government also pursued an ambitious public education program, creating over 300,000 new primary school places between 1954 and 1961.  By 1966, 99.8% of school-age children were attending primary school, although free universal primary school was not provided until 1971. Secondary school provision was expanded in the 1970s, and from 1978 the government offered compulsory free education for all children up to the age of 15.  The hand of government was much lighter on international trade and finance. Exchange controls were limited to a few imposed by the U.K., and there were no controls on international flows of capital.  Government expenditure even fell from 7.5% of GDP in the 1960s to 6.5% in the 1970s.  In the same decades, British government spending as a percent of GDP rose from 17% to 20%.

From the mid-1950s Hong Kong’s rapid success as a textile and garment exporter generated trade friction that resulted in voluntary export restraints in a series of treaties with the U.K. beginning in 1959.  Despite these agreements, Hong Kong’s exporters continued to exploit their flexibility and adaptability to increase production and find new markets.  Indeed, exports increased from 54% of GDP in the 1960s to 64% in the 1970s.  Figure 1 shows the annual changes in the growth of real GDP per capita.  In the period from 1962 until the onset of the oil crisis in 1973, the average growth rate was 6.5% per year.  From 1976 to 1996 GDP grew at an average of 5.6% per year. There were negative shocks in 1967-68 as a result of local disturbances from the onset of the Cultural Revolution in the PRC, and again in 1973 to 1975 from the global oil crisis.  In the early 1980s there was another negative shock related to politics, as the terms of Hong Kong’s return to PRC control in 1997 were formalized.

Reintegration with China, 1978-1997

The Open Door Policy of the PRC announced by Deng Xiao-ping at the end of 1978 marked a new era for Hong Kong’s economy.  With the newly vigorous engagement of China in international trade and investment, Hong Kong’s integration with the mainland accelerated as it regained its traditional role as that country’s main provider of commercial and financial services. From 1978 to 1997, visible trade between Hong Kong and the PRC grew at an average rate of 28% per annum. At the same time, Hong Kong firms began to move their labor-intensive activities to the mainland to take advantage of cheaper labor.  The integration of Hong Kong with the Pearl River delta in Guangdong is the most striking aspect of these trade and investment links.  At the end of 1997, the cumulative value of Hong Kong’s direct investment in Guangdong was estimated at US$48 billion, accounting for almost 80% of the total foreign direct investment there. Hong Kong companies and joint ventures in Guangdong province employed about five million people.  Most of these businesses were labor-intensive assembly for export, but from 1997 onward there has been increased investment in financial services, tourism and retail trade.

While manufacturing was moved out of the colony during the 1980s and 1990s, there was a surge in the service sector.  This transformation of the structure of Hong Kong’s economy from manufacturing to services was dramatic.  Most remarkably it was accomplished without faltering growth rates overall, and with an average unemployment rate of only 2.5% from 1982 to 1997.  Figure 2 shows that the value of manufacturing peaked in 1992 before beginning an absolute decline. In contrast, the value of commercial and financial services soared.  This is reflected in the contribution of services and manufacturing to GDP shown in Figure 3. Employment in the service sector rose from 52% to 80% of the labor force from 1981 to 2000 while manufacturing employment fell from 39% to 10% in the same period.

Asian Financial Crisis, 1997-2002

The terms for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in July 1997 carefully protected the territory’s separate economic characteristics, which have been so beneficial to the Chinese economy.  Under the Basic Law, a “one country-two systems” policy was formulated which left Hong Kong monetarily and economically separate from the mainland with exchange and trade controls remaining in place as well as restrictions on the movement of people.  Hong Kong was hit hard by the Asian Financial Crisis that struck the region in mid-1997, just at the time of the handover of the colony back to Chinese administrative control. The crisis prompted a collapse in share prices and the property market that affected the ability of many borrowers to repay bank loans.  Unlike most Asian countries, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and mainland China maintained their currencies’ exchange rates with the U.S. dollar rather than devaluing.  Along with the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) threat in 2002, the Asian Financial Crisis pushed Hong Kong into a new era of recession with a rise in unemployment (6% on average from 1998-2003) and absolute declines in output and prices.  The longer-term impact of the crisis has been to increase the intensity and importance of Hong Kong’s trade and investment links with the PRC. Since the PRC did not fare as badly from the regional crisis, the economic prospects for Hong Kong have been tied more closely to the increasingly prosperous mainland.

Suggestions for Further Reading

For a general history of Hong Kong from the nineteenth century, see S. Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, London: IB Tauris, 2004.  For accounts of Hong Kong’s economic history see, D.R. Meyer, Hong Kong as a Global Metropolis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000; C.R. Schenk, Hong Kong as an International Financial Centre: Emergence and Development, 1945-65, London: Routledge, 2001; and Y-P Ho, Trade, Industrial Restructuring and Development in Hong Kong, London: Macmillan, 1992. Useful statistics and summaries of recent developments are available on the website of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority

Citation: Schenk, Catherine. “Economic History of Hong Kong”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL


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