Hong Kong Island was first ceded as a crown colony to the United Kingdom from the Qing Empire in 1842 during the First Opium War.

In the last years of the 1970s into the early 1980s, the question of Hong Kong sovereignty emerged on Hong Kong's political scene as the end of the New Territories lease was approaching. Hong Kong and Macau were both removed from the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, in which territories on the list would have the right to be independent, on 2 November 1972 by request of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

In 1984, the British and Chinese governments signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration which stated that the sovereignty of Hong Kong should be transferred to the PRC on 1 July 1997, and Hong Kong should enjoy a "high degree of autonomy" under the "One Country, Two Systems" principle.

From 1983 to 1997, Hong Kong saw an exodus of emigrants to overseas countries, especially in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, which more than a million Hongkongers showed up on the streets to support to student protesters in Beijing. The Tiananmen incident of 1989 strengthened anti-Beijing sentiments and also led to the emergence of the local democracy movement, which demanded a faster pace of democratisation before and after 1997.

Since 1997, the implementation of the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45 and Article 68, which states that the Chief Executive (CE) and the Legislative Council (LegCo) should be chosen by universal suffrage, has dominated the political agenda in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy camp, one of the two largest political alignments in the territory, has called for the early implementation of the universal suffrage since the 1980s. After more than 500,000 people protested against the legislation of national security law as stipulated in the Basic Law Article 23 on 1 July 2003, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) in April 2004 ruled out universal suffrage before 2012.

In 2009 and 2010, the construction of the Hong Kong section of the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou (XRL) escalated to a series of massive protests. Many protesters accused of the Hong Kong government spending HK$69.9 billion (US$9 billion) for an unnecessary railway just to please Beijing.

In 2011, there was an emergence of localist sentiments, of which some took the anti-immigration nativist stance, fearing mainland Chinese new immigrants, tourists and parallel traders would threaten the established institutions and social customs of Hong Kong. Chin Wan's On the Hong Kong City-State, published in 2011, arguing for a "localist" perspective and to abandon the "Chinese nationalist sentiment", triggered fierce public debate and was popular among the young generation.

Some also feared it was for the benefit of the People's Liberation Army in order to mobilize its troops quicker. In 2012, the government's plan to carry out moral and national education sparked controversy as it was accused of praising the Communist Party of China and Chinese nationalist ideology while condemning democracy and "western values".

On 31 August 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) set restriction on the electoral method of the Chief Executive, in which any candidate should be screened through by a Beijing-controlled nominating committee before standing in the election. The 2014 NPCSC decision triggered a historic 79-day protest which was dubbed as the "Umbrella Revolution".

On 8 February during the 2016 Chinese New Year holidays, the Mong Kok civil unrest broke out between police and protesters following the government's crackdown on unlicensed street hawkers. Batons and pepper spray were used by the police and two warning shots were fired into the air, while protesters threw glass bottles, bricks, flower pots and trash bins toward the police and set fires in the streets. The main participant in the event, Hong Kong Indigenous, a political group with pro-independence tendencies, was branded by Director of the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong Zhang Xiaoming as "radical separatists" who were "inclined toward terrorism."

Hong Kong National Party, the first party openly advocating for Hong Kong independence and a Republic of Hong Kong was established on 28 March 2016, drawing attacks from the Beijing and SAR governments. The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office issued a statement condemning the party, saying it "has harmed the country’s sovereignty, security, endangered the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and the core interests of Hong Kong..."

Demosistō, a political party mainly led by the former student leaders such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law in the 2014 Occupy protests established on 10 April 2016, advocated a referendum to determine Hong Kong's sovereignty after 2047, when the "One Country, Two Systems" principle as promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law is supposed to expire.

On 5 August, the Hong Kong pro-independence activists launched a rally which was dubbed "first pro-independence rally in Hong Kong" and drew about 2,500 people.

In the 2016 Legislative Council election, six pro-independence activists were disqualified, including Hong Kong Indigenous' Edward Leung and Hong Kong National Party's Chan Ho-tin, by the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC), in which the government argued that their pro-independence stances did not comply with the Basic Law Article 1 which stated that Hong Kong being an inalienable part of China and Legislative Council Ordinance (Cap. 542) § 40 which required all candidates to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

On 12 October 2016 the inaugural meeting of the Legislative Council, two Youngspiration legislators Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching took the oaths of office as an opportunity to make pro-independence statements. The two claimed that "As a member of the Legislative Council, I shall pay earnest efforts in keeping guard over the interests of the Hong Kong nation," displayed a "Hong Kong is not China" banner, inserted their own words into the oaths and mispronounced "People's Republic of China" as "people's re-fucking of Chee-na".

Their oaths were invalidated by the LegCo secretary-general Kenneth Chen and were subsequently challenged by the government in the court. On 7 November 2016, the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) interpreted the Article 104 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong to "clarify" the provision of the legislators to swear allegiance to Hong Kong as part of China when they take office. The spokesman of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office stated that "[Beijing] will absolutely neither permit anyone advocating secession in Hong Kong nor allow any pro-independence activists to enter a government institution."

After the disqualification of the two legislators, the government launched the second wave of legal challenge against four more pro-democracy legislators who used the oath-taking ceremony, including Demosistō's Nathan Law as well as Lau Siu-lai, who ran their campaigns with the "self-determination" slogan. On 14 July 2017, the four legislators were unseated by the court.

On 4 September 2017, the Hong Kong independence issue made a high-profile reappearance as the banners calling for independence surfaced at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) overnight ahead of the new academic year. The school staff quickly removed them.

On 11 September, Chief Executive Carrie Lam denounced the pro-independence banners and posters, asserting the students' message ran counter to the "one country, two systems" principle and the Basic Law, "I condemn the continued appearance of such remarks on university campuses, which is in violation of our country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and development interests," she said. She also insisted academic freedom and university autonomy were no excuse for propagating fallacies.

On 15 September, ten university heads in Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Lingnan University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Education University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Open University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong, condemned the "recent abuses" of the freedom of expression in a joint statement, adding that all the universities do not support Hong Kong independence as it contravenes the Basic Law.

In the March 2018 Legislative Council by-elections for the four seats left vacant by the disqualified legislators over the oath-taking controversy, three candidates were disqualified by the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) returning officers, including Demosistō's Agnes Chow on the basis of that she "cannot possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting 'self-determination' is contrary to the content of the declaration that the law requires a candidate to make to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region]".

In August, a controversy erupted in 2018 when the FCC hosted a lunchtime talk with Andy Chan (pro-independence political activist. He is a founding member and the convenor of the Hong Kong National Party, the first party to advocate for Hong Kong independence), convenor of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) to take place on 14 August. Victor Mallet, Vice-chairman of the press organisation, chaired the session.

Mallet (Victor Mallet visa controversy is an incident in Hong Kong in 2018 that many pundits consider as having major implications for freedom of speech in Hong Kong. The Foreign Correspondents' Club scheduled a lunchtime talk for 14 August) was subjected to a four-hour interrogation by immigration officers on his return from Thailand on Sunday 7 October before he was finally allowed to enter Hong Kong.

On 2 December, Chu was told that his candidacy was invalid, making him the tenth candidate barred from running in the election for his political belief and the first banned from running in the village-level election.