To Recover Hong Kong?
Aside from the shock to Britain’s imperial system, the fall of Hong Kong in December 1941 further strained the deteriorating relations between Britain and the ROC. Not only had Britain rebuffed Chiang’s numerous offers in 1939 and 1940 for military support to defend the colony, Britain’s ‘tight-fisted’ loan policy and the British government’s general scepticism of the ROC’s claim to be one of the ‘Big Four’ further added to tensions between the two countries in 1942.2
In early 1942, shortly after the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese, the ROC made its first formal request to Britain for the rendition of Hong Kong. The British government refused to discuss the matter until after the war.3 The likes of Churchill, Stanley, and Eden publicly denied that the government was going to give up any part of the empire, especially Hong Kong.4 Within Whitehall and the Cabinet, however, there were serious divisions over the matter. During the war, the Foreign Office generally viewed the value of Hong Kong (as it did with Cyprus) in terms of foreign policy: returning Hong Kong to China might improve Anglo-Chinese relations and help to reinforce the KMT government against the CCP in the suspended civil war. Certain MPs also voiced this opinion in the British Parliament.5 Even the Colonial Office decided to consider the option.6
In fact, the fall of Hong Kong, Burma, Malaya, and Singapore by 1942 was widely considered, especially in the US, to be the death knell of British colonialism in East Asia and perhaps beyond. A chorus of American commentators and colonial nationalists called for the elimination of European empires.7 This was mainly because these humiliating defeats to the Japanese destroyed the perception of ‘white prestige’ and invincibility.8 As Bevin noted in 1946, ‘All the nations of the Far East hate Japan, but all derived satisfaction from the ability of an Asiatic Power to beat the West at its own game’.9
By 1943, however, growing anxieties regarding Britain’s economic and geopolitical power tipped the scales within Whitehall in favour of reviving its general imperial commitment, with its colonial ideology of racial superiority rebranded as an obligation to protect and develop colonial peoples.10 The British government issued numerous statements confirming its intention not to ‘liquidate the British Empire’. Hong Kong, despite being occupied by Japan and coveted by China, was no different in this regard. In August 1943, the Colonial Office established the Hong Kong Planning Unit to organize post-war reoccupation efforts. In November 1944, Clement
Attlee, the deputy prime minister, reiterated that ‘no part of the British Empire’ was to be decolonized and that British businesses should prepare to return to Hong Kong after the war.11 In April 1945, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a conversation about Hong Kong, informed General Patrick Hurley, the US special envoy to China, that ‘never would we yield an inch of the territory that was under the British Flag’.12
Arguments for the return of Hong Kong to China could not compete with the colony’s economic and strategic value in peacetime, combined with the salvaging of British imperial prestige in Asia and beyond.13 British policy-makers directly linked the empire to the country’s great power status, especially to compete with the US and Soviet Union, whose leaders increasingly dictated post-war planning.