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

The KMT-CCP Rivalry

The KMT-CCP rivalry over the future of China and Chinese nationalism shared sociocultural battlefields with the Cold War as well as efforts to reform British colonial rule—all of which coalesced in Hong Kong. One of the most important ways that Chinese nationalist politics were first manifest in the colony was through labour affairs. However, it was not until after the British lost the colony to Japan that the KMT-CCP rivalry entrenched itself across Hong Kong society. As such, the returning British civil administration (reinstated on 1 May 1946) faced two main challenges: Chinese politics and colonial reform.

The presence of Chinese politics in Hong Kong had long been a source of major concern for British administrators, particularly in the area of trade unionism. The economic necessity of compliant workers made them key targets for all involved. In fact, years before labour unrest rocked the empire in the mid- to late 1930s, the Hong Kong government was forced to deal with powerful colonial unions.

The first large-scale strike action by a Hong Kong trade union occurred in March 1920, when the Hong Kong Chinese Engineers’ Institute organized a nineteen-day strike for higher wages. Over the next two years, its success inspired some forty-two strikes for similar ends. This unrest climaxed with the eight-week seamen’s strike of 1922. Most of these strikes, particularly those of the seamen, called for wage increases and were economically-driven. Governor Reginald Stubbs (1919-1925), however, erroneously interpreted the 1922 seamen’s strike as political and organized by the CCP from Canton. His severe response included proscribing the Chinese Seamen’s Union (which would eventually resurface as the CCP-dominated Hong Kong Seamen’s Union), which in turn prompted a general strike of more than one-fifth of Hong Kong’s population, including the Chinese staff of Government House. To prevent an exodus from the colony, the government suspended the train service to Canton, and police opened fire, killing five strikers. Conditions continued to deteriorate until the government and the shipping companies acquiesced. This resounding defeat of the British government and the Chinese elite put labour movements front and centre for policy-makers, where they would remain for decades.22

But it was the 1925-1926 general strike and eighteen-month boycott, supported by the KMT in Canton, that first fused Hong Kong labour movements with Chinese nationalist politics. The CCP, as part of Chiang’s united front (before its expulsion in 1927), was instrumental in organizing events in the colony and significantly benefitted in terms of local power and prestige. During the course of the strike-cum-boycott, its ranks swelled from 1,000 to 30,000. Blaming the unrest on the communists, instead of recognizing its broader Chinese nationalist overtones, Governor Stubbs’s response was clumsy and severe. His replacement in November 1925, Sir Cecil Clementi, while having a much better grasp of Chinese politics, was just as ineffective in ending the boycott. It was not until KMT energies were redirected to the Northern Expedition, including the Comintern’s instructions to the CCP to cease their activities in Hong Kong to avoid British military intervention, that the end of the boycott was negotiated. In July 1927, in an attempt to divorce labour from Chinese nationalist politics, the Hong Kong government enacted the Illegal Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance, which banned political objectives for strikes and foreign affiliations for trade unions.23

The Colonial Office would later complain that the organization of labour in Hong Kong ‘was not an organic growth arising out of a struggle for better wages or working conditions’. In Hong Kong as well as in China, labour was instead ‘caught up with a revolutionary movement in China which determined its development according to political exigency’. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Colonial Office memorandum claimed, the Hong Kong government gave ‘every encouragement [...] to the workers to organise themselves’, resulting in ‘a remarkable growth of genuine Trade Unionism in 1940 and 1941’. The Colonial Office blamed the Japanese for destroying this movement.24

In reality, ‘genuine’ trade unionism (by which the British policy-makers were referring to non-political, especially non-communist, unions) had been stymied since the government’s strong-handed reaction in the 1920s. In 1939, the Hong Kong government’s labour officer, Henry Robert Butters, admitted that since 1927, ‘the surviving Hong Kong unions became little more than friendly societies concerned more with the provision of funeral expenses for the dead than the improvement of the conditions for the living’.25

The loss of Hong Kong in 1941 revived Chinese nationalist politics in the colony and opened the door for CCP domination. As the Joint Intelligence Committee (Far East), or JIC(FE), later recognized, events of the Second World War had created

factors favourable to the spread of communism [which] included increasing nationalist feeling (later encouraged by the examples of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon), the greatly enhanced prestige of the USSR.[.«c], a loss of European prestige consequent of defeats suffered at the hands of the Japanese, general political instability and disruption of economy. To these may be added the inevitable post-war lawlessness and the fact that communists operating as guerillas [sic] had, in many countries, provided the core of anti-Japanese resistance movements; [sic] and consequently possessed a reserve of arms of allied origin which rendered them more formidable.26

This general assessment was mostly accurate in the case of Hong Kong. In January 1938, with the Japanese constituting the most immediate threat in East Asia, the KMT and British allowed the CCP to establish the Office of the Eighth Route Army in Hong Kong, to arouse anti-Japanese cooperation from local and overseas Chinese, to collect and distribute their donations, to distribute propaganda, to coordinate covert work, and to direct overseas Chinese volunteers who sought to join the Red Army. However, the CCP was also keen to spread its influence more generally, especially at the expense of its ally in the anti-Japanese ‘Second United Front’, the KMT.27

By early 1941, anti-Japanese guerrilla fighters under KMT command began operations in Hong Kong. By 1943, these guerrilla units had been put under communist control, renamed the East River Column, and made an auxiliary of the Kwangtung People’s Anti-Japanese Guerrilla Corps. With its headquarters in the New Territories, the column’s commander- in-chief was Zeng Sheng, the secretary-general of the left-wing Hong Kong Seamen’s Union.28

The East River Column cooperated with the British Army in fighting the Japanese.29 The column, armed with rifles left by defeated British troops and supported by unemployed Hong Kong workers, rescued communist and left-wing individuals in occupied Hong Kong and aided Allied escapees.30 The East River Column rescued an estimated 89 ‘international friends’, including some 20 British and 54 Indian POWs.31 While after the war they sent most of their arms to the CCP forces in north China, according to John Borrow, the British district officer in the New Territories, the communists ‘left behind [a] political nuclei to see that the good work (as they see it) which they did is not undone’, which specifically included maintaining the sympathy of the youth.32

Such distrust in Hong Kong was balanced by recognition in London of the communists’ cooperation, demonstrated most poignantly by the invitation extended to Huang Zuomei, a Hong Kong-born translator of the East River Column, to represent the column in the Victory Day parade in London in June 1946, where he was also awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).33 The British similarly awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) to Chin Peng, a member and soon-to-be secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party, for his part in resisting Japanese occupation.34

The honours system of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, to which the MBE belonged as the lowest and most populated class, was created in 1917 by King George V for the recognition of war contributions of any British subject. David Cannadine has argued that this system completed ‘Britain’s imperial honorific hierarchy’, promoted ‘a sense of common belonging and collective participation’, and ‘created and projected an ordered, unified, hierarchical picture of empire’.35 It is unsurprising that British policy-makers sought to keep such important Chinese communists integrated into the British imperial system, especially as Chin Peng’s Malayan Communist Party was already in 1946 beginning ‘to implement the classic Russian pattern of revolution by seeding popular discontent through propaganda and economic disruption’.36 Chin Peng would soon have his OBE revoked.

Upon the resumption of civil government in 1946, Hong Kong authorities were quick to take stock of the political situation in the colony. In November, Thomas Megarry, Young’s acting secretary for Chinese affairs, observed that the KMT was in the process of forming an ‘impe- rium in imperio’. As evidence, Megarry pointed to the KMT’s cultural dominance in media, education, labour, and social and commercial organizations. The KMT could boast domination over 35 private schools as well as the vernacular press. It also established in Hong Kong sometime after 1938 a branch of the ‘Three People’s Principles Youth Corps’, which British authorities believed was training members to collect political intelligence and spy on opponents of the KMT. Perhaps most worrying for Young’s administration was the KMT’s strength in labour affairs—this included the Chinese Seamen’s Union, which, according to Megarry, was ‘a powerful weapon’ against foreign shipping companies employing Chinese seamen.37

Megarry (and Young), however, overestimated the KMT’s position in the colony, measuring power in quantity rather than quality. On paper, the KMT had the numerical advantage over the CCP in media and labour. In reality, the largest KMT newspaper, The National Times, had ‘one of the smallest circulations in the Colony’ by April 1947, which continued to fall until it was finally closed down in January 1949. The CCP, on the other hand, distributed pro-communist and anti-KMT news bulletins with the help of the East River Column.38 While the KMT controlled more trade unions, they were concentrated in the service industries (e.g. restaurants and shops), while the CCP established unions in the major sectors of the Hong Kong economy, such as shipping, textiles, construction, and public utilities.39 Moreover, the Chinese Seamen’s Union was actually significantly weaker than its rival, the Hong Kong Seamen’s Union, which was squarely in the CCP’s camp. And while Megarry was correct in asserting that a general seamen’s strike could have completely paralyzed ‘all the economic life of the Colony which depends on the trade handled by the port’, it was not in the KMT’s power to orchestrate such an act.40 In fact, according to Tsang, the KMT’s unions were ‘weak and politically inactive’.41

Nevertheless, Megarry argued that the local population, apart from the few supporters of the CCP and of the smaller anti-KMT parties, was unwilling to antagonize the KMT because of Hong Kong’s uncertain future. If Hong Kong was to be returned to China, the local Chinese did not want to be without ‘influence with or even in disfavour with what is the most powerful political party in China’. As such, the KMT’s imperium within Britain’s imperio undermined ‘the foundations of our administration that, when the occasion suits it, it can manoeuver an unilateral resumption of the territory and meanwhile batten on its wealth and bend the populace to its will by methods of subtle intimidation’.42

Young and Megarry were convinced that the KMT had to go. Young therefore instructed his security services in early 1947 to prepare for the expulsion of the KMT from the colony, if and when such action could be justified. Young, however, retired in May and the order for expulsion never came.43

This was, in part, the result of a growing recognition that while the CCP was an effective counter-force to the KMT in the ‘tug-o’-war’ of Chinese nationalist politics in the colony, the reverse was also true.44 And with the rise in communist-led anti-colonial movements in East Asia, British authorities became aware of their inaccurate assessment of the KMT-CCP rivalry. With their patriotic wartime legacy, their social influence especially in trade unionism, and their alternative vision for China’s political and nationalistic framework, the CCP was well-placed to take advantage of the concentration of anti-KMT sentiment in Hong Kong. Thus, British policy-makers soon identified the CCP as their main threat and, as we will see in the following sections, took explicit (but not public) action against it.

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