At the end of the nineteenth century a slice of imperial China was abruptly incorporated into the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. It became known as the New Territories.
The people of this remote and traditional corner of the Ching empire were not consulted about the annexation, initially resisted and long resented it. To placate them, the incoming authorities promised that little would alter and that their customs would be respected. The promise would not be fully kept but it became the source of the preservation of Chinese customary law in respect of rural land and the justification for privileges afforded to indigenous inhabitants. Their tenacious assertion of those rights and aversion to authority is detectible throughout the twentieth century and into the era of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; it permeates almost every aspect of policy and law relating to rural land.
The Unruly New Territories is an account of the annexed area and of its special place in Hong Kong history and law. It recounts the customs and privileges, how they preserved a China that was elsewhere disappearing and how they gave—and, despite enormous changes, continue to give—leverage to indigenous representatives in dealings with government as well as handsome profits to rural landowners.
Malcolm Merry is a barrister and adjunct professor in Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong.