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I still don't get why Claude MacDonald wrote down 99 years. Why not play it safe and add more 9's? Why not write down 999? I know hindsight's 20/20, but it feels stupid for the British not to pick a bigger number!
Or why not just write down "forever" or "unlimited"?
Did the British worry the Chinese government would resist if the treaty said "forever"?
Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory - Wikipedia
Under the convention the territories north of what is now Boundary Street and south of the Sham Chun River, and the surrounding islands, later known as the "New Territories" were leased to the United Kingdom for 99 years rent-free, expiring on 30 June 1997, and became part of the crown colony of Hong Kong. The Kowloon Walled City was excepted and remained under the control of Qing China. The territories which were leased to the United Kingdom were originally governed by Xin'an County, Guangdong province. Claude MacDonald, the British representative during the convention, picked a 99-year lease because he thought it was "as good as forever". Britain did not think they would ever have to give the territories back. The 99-year lease was a convenient agreement.
They didn't. Wikipedia is misleading.
In fact, Britain had set out with the intent of securing a cession in perpetuity (i.e. forever), and was negotiated down to a 99-year lease by the Chinese.
[MacDonald's] instructions required him to secure another cession in perpetuity. What he negotiated was a 99-year lease: MacDonald was persuaded by imperial officials that it would be awkward if Britain did not follow the precedent of recent grants of territory.
McLaren, Robin. Britain's Record in Hong Kong. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1997.
It's useful to put this in context. The British scheme was in part motivated (and/or excused) as a reaction to France's lease of Kouang-Tchéou-Wan earlier the same year, which was also a 99-year lease. Under traditional balance-of-power thinking, the British reaction should not be so provocative as to trigger its own reactions from France. In fact, this philosophy is what stopped Britain from pushing to enlarge Hong Kong earlier:
[In 1895] an official report commending an extension and readjustment of the Hong Kong frontier for naval and military reasons met with a divided response due to fears that any action could provoke France to retaliate. Therefore, the French lease of Kwang-chow-wan only 210 miles to the southwest of Hong Kong made it necessary and also possible for Britain to launch negotiations.
Becker, Bert. "French Kwang-Chow-Wan and British Hong Kong: Politics and Shipping, 1890s-1920s." British and French Colonialism in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019. 181-221.
The same mentality was clearly evident in 1898. As mentioned previously, the British negotiator, Sir Claude McDonald, originally sought to acquire the New Territories permanently. He was persuaded to accept a lease when the Chinese argued that the other Great Powers would follow suit. In MacDonald's own words:
The question of the nature of our title to the extension of territory was more troublesome. I tried to obtain an absolute cession, but could not resist the force of the argument that all other nations who have obtained leases of territory would follow suit, which might be inconvenient for ourselves. The principle of a lease having been admitted a term of ninety-nine years seemed sufficient.
Britain, Great. Correspondence Respecting the Affairs of China. HM Stationery Office, 1898.
Clearly MacDonald did not consider a 99-year lease to be literally "as good as forever", only that it "seemed sufficient". This was a compromise over strategic concerns.
A 99-year lease seemed sufficient.
It's easy to see why MacDonald thought so. Europeans of the time generally believed (correctly) that Qing China was in terminal decline. British rule in Hong Kong expanded in 1842, 1860 and 1898: only a few decades apart each time. For all they know there would be another opportunity soon enough. No one could know at the time that European imperialism was itself heading towards terminal decline within a few decades.
Moreover, remember that Britain was in China for commercial interests, and not the land per se. The general trend of the time was to ensure trade access, e.g. Open Door Policy or the 1900 Yangtze Agreement. Land did not inherently benefit this.
As we see today, ownership of Hong Kong is no longer vital to British commercial interests. Nor is it tenable in the face of an industrialising China, as demonstrated by the return of Macau and the perpetually ceded parts of Hong Kong, or the seizure of Goa by India.
So indeed, the 99 year lease ended up being as good as "forever".
It is worth noting that in 1997, China got "more" of Hong Kong than it was entitled to. It's true that the so-called "New Territories" were supposed to revert to China in 1997. But the 19th century treaties called for two parts of Hong Kong, the island of that name, and Kowloon to remain with the British in perpetuity. But Britain ceded all of Hong Kong, because its portion of the city was not viable without the New Territories. This, in turn, was related to the fact that China's level of economic development (in the Hong Kong area) was comparable to the British level of development, and it had far greater "mass," both in the New Territories themselves, and in South China, than British Hong Kong enjoyed.
In 1898, on the other hand, the most developed parts of "Hong Kong" were the British parts of the city. The "New Territories" were a backwater at the time. More to the point, China was then a highly "underdeveloped" nation, while Britain was arguably the world's most advanced. The British reasoned that if they concentrated development on the "British" part of Hong Kong and left the New Territories backward and dependent on the advanced part, the New Territories could be made so dependent on British Hong Kong that it would not make sense for China to reclaim it.
If this were the case, "99 years was as good as forever." The issue was that the balance of power changed greatly in favor of China, and against the British (in fact, almost reversed) during that time. But no Britisher in 1898 was likely to foresee that this would be the case.
It's true that the Chinese government "talked down" the British envoy to "99" years. But China has a much longer history than Britain, going back perhaps 3000 years, while Britain (in its modern form) has a history more like 1000 years. The Chinese simply thought in longer time spans.