Desktop version

Home arrow Political science arrow Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires

Hong Kong and Cyprus

This clash between British and communist imperialisms was pervasive in both Hong Kong and Cyprus, where by the early 1940s, there operated two of what policy-makers considered to be the British Empire’s most dangerous communist threats: the CCP and AKEL, respectively. In addition to Anglo-Soviet tensions regarding their imperial peripheries which existed from the 1920s, there had been a communist presence in Hong Kong from as early as 1920. In Cyprus, AKEL’s predecessor, the Communist Party of Cyprus (KKK), which was founded in 1926, had caused the British authorities there so much concern that the latter proscribed the KKK in 1933.28 By the end of the Second World War, the perceived Soviet threat to the British Empire took on greater urgency, particularly given the gradual breakdown of Allied cooperation, Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe, increasing pressure from colonial nationalist movements across the empire, and fears of Britain’s declining world power.

Both Hong Kong and Cyprus were subjected to internal communist and nationalist agitation as well as external claims of sovereignty, economically devastated by the Second World War, and threatened, it was believed, by Soviet-directed communist movements. Attempts at constitutional advancement (as part of a wider colonial strategy to justify the continuation of the British Empire and to contain nationalist agitation and communist imperialism) failed in both Cyprus and Hong Kong. Instead, policy-makers sought to maintain British sovereignty over these two geostrategic islands (i.e. on the frontline of Soviet and Chinese communist expansionism) and thus engaged in a (mostly) cold war against the local, regional, and international communist forces which were active, or at least perceived to be active, in these two colonies.

Hong Kong and Cyprus therefore offer important insights into the process by which British policy-makers attempted to adapt their approach to imperialism in order to compete with those of the Soviets and, eventually, the US and PRC in the Cold War. This might be surprising, as Hong Kong’s and Cyprus’s respective historiographies have, in different ways, overlooked the Cold War battles within the territories. This book thus presents alternative narratives to the nationalist-focused history of Cyprus and the neutrality myth of Hong Kong history. In both cases, the colonial governments identified local communism (as well as its links, both real and imagined, to external communist movements and organizations) as the most dangerous threat to their respective colony’s stability and ‘proper’ development and took action against it.

Historical studies of Cyprus have generally been inward-focused, evident in the historiographical domination of the Greek-Cypriot nationalist revolt for enosis (1955-1959) and Cyprus’s subsequent turning points , including independence (1960), the Greek coup and Turkish intervention (1974), and partition (1983). Until the 2000s, Cyprus’s communists have been generally ignored. When they did receive scholarly attention, AKEL was blamed, as Robert Holland has argued, for being but one factor in the radicalization of the Greek-Cypriot nationalists, while also serving as, in Nancy Crawshaw’s words, a ‘preoccupation’ which distracted the British from recognizing ‘that in the long term the greatest threat to British interests in Cyprus came from the right wing’.29 As such, the ways in which Cyprus influenced and was influenced by the Cold War have been obscured.

Since 1999, there has been a boom in the number of studies of AKEL’s importance to Cypriot history and politics, but these have yet to move the discussion into wider Cold War or imperial narratives.30 In 2006, Andreas Panayiotou examined AKEL’s sociopolitical influence within his broader thesis that ‘the communist alternative was also particularly attractive to non-western societies’, especially in colonial territories where communism ‘represented a radical/revolutionary alternative to ineffective middle-class liberalism, nationalism [...] and traditional/conservative movements’.31 This is an important observation, one which British colonial administrators had recognized not only in Cyprus but across the empire and in the metropole. How the British imagined and responded to this ‘communist alternative’ is at the heart of this study.

The historiographical recognition of Hong Kong’s position in the Cold War has been facilitated by its regional context and physical proximity to communist China. In Asia, the number of Cold War proxy wars in, for example, China, Korea, French Indochina, and Malaya as well as the geopolitical upheaval caused by the formation of the PRC have made the connections between colonies and the Cold War much more obvious than elsewhere in the British Empire.32 Nevertheless, there is a general consensus in the historiography of Hong Kong that, as Steve Tsang has put it, ‘the authorities in Hong Kong adhered as far as possible to a policy of strict neutrality in Chinese politics, supported by an attitude of non-provocative firmness towards the two Chinese regimes’.33 The list of important works on Hong Kong which contain similar statements is a long one.34

However, while this was indeed the public face of policy and while nonprovocation was an important consideration, British officials in London and Hong Kong, including the supposedly neutral governor, Sir Alexander Grantham, were in fact explicitly anti-communist in their motivations and intentions for policy-formation beginning in mid-1948, if not earlier.35 By comparing this preoccupation with that in Cyprus, this book further elucidates the predominance of a Cold War mentality underpinning British colonial policy-making more generally as well as how the Cold War was fought in the colonies.


This book is divided into three sections, each of which contains an introduction to the wider imperial and Cold War context, a chapter on Hong Kong, a chapter on Cyprus, and a concluding comparative chapter. The first section details the origins of Cold War imperial tensions between Britain and the Soviet Union and compares the formation and rise of the CCP and AKEL therein. The second section covers the general shift in British imperial strategy of moving certain colonies towards greater self-government as, partly, a response to the Soviet imperial challenge. In Hong Kong and Cyprus, policy-makers reformed their colonial rule, rescinding some particularly repressive and/or racist laws, and tried to introduce limited internal self-government. In both cases, they failed for a number of local and geopolitical reasons; in both cases, Britain’s attempt to transform its approach to imperialism was challenged and undermined, at least in the minds of policy-makers, by communist movements. The third section examines the decline of the British imperial system and the British government’s shifting priorities from empire to Europe. In Hong Kong and Cyprus, while acknowledging the benefits of providing a positive pro-British alternative to communism, policy-makers reverted to the repressive tactics of pre-war colonialism in order to counter the perceived threats posed by the CCP, AKEL, their respective front organizations, and their international affiliations, including the Soviet Union and the PRC.

Finally, the book concludes by expanding on several key themes in Britain’s Cold War battles in Hong Kong and Cyprus, including youth and education, labour and trade unionism, population control, and the interrelationship of imperial ideologies and the Cold War. What is clear from this study is that the threat of communism, while perhaps presented publicly in ideological terms and certainly fought through ideological and cultural warfare, was almost always within the British imperial system described by policy-makers as a threat of material, territorial, and/or psychological expansionism. The Cold War was indeed a conflict of empires.

British domestic, foreign, and colonial policy-makers believed that they were resisting aggressive Soviet imperialism bent on destroying the British Empire via the propagation of a neo-colonial ideology and the manipulation of its proponents across the world. From this official perception (regardless of real Soviet intentions or capabilities), policy-makers in Hong Kong, Cyprus, and London sought to meet this perceived imperial threat on the local cultural and ideological battlefields of the Cold War.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics