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CHRONOLOGY: Timeline of 156 years of British rule in Hong Kong

(Reuters) - Split between a densely populated mainland and over 200 islands in the South China Sea, the small, strategic territory of Hong Kong was under British rule for 156 years before reverting to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.

Here is a timeline of key events from this period:

-- March 1839: Governor of Hunan, Lin Tse-hsu, orders 20,000 chests of opium destroyed and for traders to retreat to the British merchant fleet anchored off Hong Kong, in an attempt to stamp out British importation of opium to China through southern Guangzhou. The first Opium War starts in September 1839.

-- August 29, 1842: The Queen of England and the Emperor of China sign the Treaty of Nanking; the first of a series of so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’ between East Asian states and western powers. The peace deal ends the first Opium War and cedes Hong Kong Island to Britain.

-- October 18, 1860: Kowloon Peninsula is ceded under the Convention of Peking, that ends the second Opium War


-- July 1, 1898: China leases the rural New Territories -- the mainland area adjacent to Kowloon and 235 islands -- to Britain for 99 years.

-- March, 1979: Hong Kong Governor Murray MacLehose raises the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping on his first official visit to China. Deng says China will reassert sovereignty over the “special region” after June 30, 1997.

-- 1982: Former British Prime Minister Edward Heath meets Deng Xiaoping as Margaret Thatcher’s special envoy. Deng tells him after 1997 China will rule Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” policy.

-- September 22, 1982: Prime Minister Thatcher makes her first visit to China to discuss Hong Kong’s future.

-- December 19, 1984: The Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty agreeing that all of Hong Kong would be returned to China at midnight on June 30, 1997, is signed in Beijing after four months of talks. It is ratified in May 1985.

-- June 1985: A 58-member Basic Law Drafting Committee is formed in Beijing to draw up Hong Kong’s new mini constitution, the Basic Law. China’s National People’s Congress approves the final draft in April 1990.

-- July 9, 1992: Conservative British politician Chris Patten takes up his post as Hong Kong’s last governor.

-- April 22, 1993: China and the UK resume negotiations on the future of Hong Kong after a hiatus of several months.

-- January 26, 1996: Beijing forms the 150-member Preparatory Committee of the Hong Kong SAR to appoint a 400-member Selection Committee that will choose Hong Kong’s future Chief Executive.

-- September 26: China and the UK agree on arrangements for the handover ceremony.

-- February 23, 1997: Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing votes to repeal or amend various laws regarding civil liberties in Hong Kong.

-- June 30, 1997: The British flag is lowered and the Hong Kong and Chinese flags raised at midnight to signal Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule.

-- July 1, 1997: More than 4,000 troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army cross the border into Hong Kong in the early hours of the morning. Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and the Provisional Legislative Council, are sworn in later in the day.

Sources: Reuters, A Political Chronology of Central, South and East Asia, (Europa Publications, 2001).