Unbeknownst to most Westerners, all of China is not a single unified country. There are four distinct areas of China which operate nearly completely separately from the People’s Republic of China. China is a very large country with a massive population. It is no wonder then, that great divisions in culture have arisen: not only between north and south- but in other ways as well. Separated by only narrow straits of water both constitutional special administrative region of Hong Kong and Macau remain under China’s ‘one country, two systems’ policy.
In 1839, the refusal of Qing Dynasty authorites to promote opium exports led to the First Opium War between the United Kingdom and China. By 1941 the Qing Dynasty ceded Hong Kong to the British forces. However, the ceasefire that gave most of the island to the British, the Convention of Chuenpee, was never signed. It wasn’t until 50 years later that an official document gave the United Kingdom control of Hong Kong.
After the Second Opium War in 1860 the British were able to capture more parts of the Island. Then, in 1898, the Chinese signed a rent-free lease that gave the British control of Hong Kong and 200 outlaying islands for 99 years. During this time racial tensions were high as ethnic Chinese were treated as second-class citizens.
However, also during this time Hong Kong advanced quickly. Because it was established as a free port it drew in people from around the China and Europe to live and trade there. As the manufacturing industry dwindled in the 1950’s through the 1970’s it gave way for Hong Kong to establish itself as a global financial center in the 1990s. Today it is on par with London and New York.
Then, in 1984, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration the countries announced that the People’s Republic of China will regain control of Hong Kong in 1997 when the 99 year lease expires. The agreement stipulated that Britain would give up its last crown colony under the condition that Hong Kong be China’s first special administrative region, allowing it to act autonomously from the Peoples Republic of China. The declaration made Hong Kong a special administrative region for at least 50 years. Currently, Hong Kong still retains its free-market economy, its own constitution, makes its own treaty arrangements, identifies itself separately at international organisations as well has print its own money.
It’s still officially known as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
Today Macau harbors a great way of life. Not only is it one of the richest cities with a higher GDP per capita than any country; it also has the second highest life expectancy in the world.
Macau has been through a slightly less tumultuous history on its way to special administrative region. The first significant establishment was by Portuguese traders in the mid 1500’s. As the Portuguese population grew they formed their own scaled-down version of government overseen by the Chinese.
After defending Macau from Dutch attacks and erring on the side of the Chinese during the First Opium War they signed a treaty that gave the Portuguese sole control of Macau for perpetuity. Even through two successive treaties: one when the Qing dynasty was overthrown, and another when the modern-day People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Portugal retained control of the small territory.
After a revolution in Portugal, then a series of concessions by the Portuguese, Macau gained increasing autonomy during the 1970’s. In 1987 the countries signed the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration that returned Macau to China as a special administrative region. The transfer officially took place in December of 1999; and like Hong Kong, Macau enjoys a full range of autonomy.
Wenchuan Wolong Special Administrative Region of Sichuan Province is the third SAR in China. Unlike Hong Kong and Macau it is located in mainland China. Also, unlike the Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions Wolong was not created after being colonized. Instead Wolong is actually controlled by the Forestry Department of Sichuan province. Since before it became a special administrative region, and continuing today, Wolong is home to a natural reserve and panda paradise.
Also not a true special administrative region, Taiwan’s history in and with China is complicated and its future uncertain.
First, there is the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China distinction that needs to be made. With the treaty that signaled their defeat in the first Chinese-Japanese war in 1895, the Qing (pronounced ching) Dynasty, among other things, lost control of Taiwan to Japan.
Then, in 1912, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the Republic of China (ROC) was established. During this time the ROC governed all of China.
Following World War II China- still known as ROC- took control over Taiwan. This occurred in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered the island. However, the influx of mainland Chinese and the linguistic and cultural divisions, between the mainlanders and the Taiwanese people, could never be mended. This led to a civil war in which the Chinese Nationalists (ROC) were defeated by the Communist party led by Mao Zedong. Thus, in 1949, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China (PROC).
In response to their defeat, two months later the ROC relocated to the city of Taipei on the island of Taiwan. There the Chinese Nationalists known as the ROC kept control of Taiwan and several other minor islands. However, the ROC has always maintained that it is independent of mainland China and continues to claim sovereignty over all of China- including the mainland as well.
Over the years Taiwan has grown increasingly independent of China. Continually cutting political ties, promoting Taiwanese culture, creating a new constitution, and establishing a multi-party government. However, the issue of independence and reunification with China is still a hotly debated- and convoluted- subject.