Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Prof. Mark HAMPTON

Second Advisor

Prof. Grace CHOU Ai-ling


This thesis is an exploration of how, in the late colonial period, Hong Kong’s government and business groups sought to keep the colony’s channels of trade free from restriction, and the colonial regime sought to keep Hong Kong’s free port status intact. Hong Kong’s colonial history began with its founding as a free port in a period when Britain subscribed wholeheartedly to free trade ideals, and the colony would remain broadly committed to free trade even as the metropole’s own faith wavered. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, however, the Chinese communist government placed restrictions on certain imports from abroad. Further undermining Hong Kong’s re-export trade with China was a UN-imposed economic embargo on the PRC following their participation in the Korean War. Hong Kong’s subsequent reliance on light industry and textile exports was met with protectionist responses from Western governments – including the colony’s sovereign power – from the late 1950s onwards. Finally, the prospect of return to China put in doubt Hong Kong’s future status as a free port and an exemplar of free enterprise principles more widely.

As a colonial dependency with little economic leverage on the international stage, Hong Kong’s government and business elites relied on appeals to the metropole, public relations initiatives, and commercial diplomacy in attempts to reduce barriers to trade and maximise access to export markets. Arguments for the preservation of Hong Kong’s right to free trade involved a number of constructed narratives that led to certain conceptualised images of Hong Kong. These narratives included the fundamental importance of free trade to Hong Kong’s economic wellbeing and political stability, Hong Kong’s regional importance as a bastion of free enterprise and democratic principles at the edge of the Sino-Soviet communist bloc, the responsibility of imperial metropoles to their colonies and of developed nations to the developing, and a commitment to free trade as part of a wider belief in minimal government intervention as the basis of good governance.

These rhetorical strategies tell us much about how geopolitical changes and shifts in the nature of the international economy shaped the trajectory of Hong Kong’s late colonial history, and likewise, how the colony’s government and business elites conceived instrumentalist ideals of Hong Kong. As a period beginning with Britain’s commitment to re-establishing British rule in Hong Kong after Japanese occupation, and ending with an agreement that would transfer sovereignty to China, the implications of a gradual imperial withdrawal are a paramount consideration. On one hand, the endurance of colonial status into a post-colonial period had ramifications for Hong Kong’s capacity to defend its trading rights on the international stage, whilst on the other, as imperial ties began to dissolve, the colony’s emergence into an autonomous, global city with its own identity and ideals was realised. This thesis, therefore, through an investigation of Hong Kong’s defence of its access to free trade, provides new understandings of the postwar history of Hong Kong in imperial and international contexts, and therefore of British imperialism and its interaction with other global forces.

Recommended Citation

Fellows, J. (2016). The rhetoric of trade and decolonisation in Hong Kong, 1945-1984 (Doctor's thesis, Lingnan University, Hong Kong). Retrieved from

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