Hong Kong is a very interesting place for many reasons. It operates almost completely autonomously as a capitalist state even though it is a part of the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC); it has the fourth greatest population density per square mile of any country or territory in the world; and the flag of Hong Kong is a great example of modern flag design.
Hong Kong’s vexillological history begins after the First Opium War (1839-1842), fought over trade rights between the United Kingdom and China. Hong Kong island (a portion of what is known as Hong Kong today) was taken by the British forces in 1841 and was eventually established as a British colony in 1842. British colonial Hong Kong would expand in 1860 after the Second Opium War and again in 1898 when the British negotiated a 99-year lease of what are known as the New Territories.
The British Union Flag would serve as the colony’s flag until 1870, when Hong Kong got its first official flag; a blue British ensign defaced with a seal, typical of most British colonies at that time. For the next century or so, Hong Kong’s flag history is a little boring (don’t worry, it gets better). Even though its flag changed three times over the next century (not including when the colony was under Japanese rule during World War II), the changes made were limited to new seals in 1876, 1910, and 1959.
Only two truly notable flags came from Hong Kong before its return to Chinese rule in 1997; the flags of Hong Kong’s urban and regional councils, groups responsible for municipal services in certain parts of Hong Kong. The urban council flag was white Bauhinia blakeana blossom (a flower first discovered in Hong Kong) outlined on a magenta field, while the regional council flag was a white “R” tilted and stylized to look like a tree on a green field.
With the end of Britain’s 99-year lease nearing, Britain and China began holding discussions in the early 1980s to determine what would happen to Hong Kong. The pair came to an agreement in 1984, known as the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which stated that Hong Kong would become a part of China as a “Special Administrative Region” that would allow it to remain almost completely autonomous. The declaration guaranteed Hong Kong the right to maintain its free-market economy and a law system inspired by British Common Law for at least 50 years.
In May of 1987, Hong Kong held a contest to design a post-colonial flag. Six finalists were chosen from the more than 4,400 submissions; however the finalists were all rejected by the PRC. Afterwards, Tao Ho, an architect and judge for the contest, was asked to submit a design. Ho reportedly came up with his design while walking through a garden and seeing a Bauhinia blakeana flower. He says he was inspired by the flower’s symmetry and winding shape. Ho’s finished design incorporated the same red field found on China’s flag with a white, stylized Bauhinia blakeana blossom to symbolize the harmony between Hong Kong and China. Each of the five flower pedals feature a star, mirroring the five stars on China’s flag that represent the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s four classes (proletarian workers, agricultural peasants, petty bourgeoisie and capitalists).
Ho’s design was accepted by the PRC and flown on midnight of July 1, 1997, the day that Hong Kong officially became a part of China.
Hong Kong’s flag has a few interesting laws regarding its use. Whenever flown alongside the PRC flag, the national flag must be both larger than Hong Kong’s flag and flown in a more prominent position (in the center, higher flag pole, etc.). The Hong Kong and PRC flags also have laws that prohibit certain uses for the flags (such as in advertisements and trademarks) and that protect them against desecration, similar to laws the U.S. flag once had. Unlike the laws for the U.S. flag, however, Hong Kong’s laws are enforced. Three people have been charged with desecrating either a Hong Kong or PRC flag in the Special Administrative Region, one of whom served jail time for three weeks.