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Reform and Loyalties

In addition to the KMT-CCP rivalry, returning British civil authorities faced another challenge—a challenge shared across the empire—in the form of their deplorable pre-war colonial rule. Exacerbated by the legacies of Japanese occupation—including a malnourished population, lawless society, and collapsed economy—British authorities recognized that to reintroduce racist, segregationist, and unfair laws would do nothing to win popular support away from ‘foreign’ Chinese political parties. The biggest problem, according to David MacDougall, the former head of the Colonial Office’s Hong Kong Planning Unit and now the colonial secretary in Hong Kong, was that ‘[Royalties are discounted and disloyalties excused on the shifting grounds of expediency. White is as uncommon as black, and in a world of grey men, outstanding renegades and trustworthy leaders for the future are equally difficult to discover.’45

This was largely attributable to the fact that upon liberation from Japanese occupation, the first priority of the local population was finding sufficient food. Furthermore, there was considerable uncertainty about the political future of Hong Kong, especially as the local population was simply unaware of the wartime agreement between China and Britain which ensured the latter’s continued sovereignty over the colony.46

Ultimately, Britain’s pre-war government in Hong Kong had managed to win the ‘passive support’ of its Chinese subjects but not their loyalty or affection. This was demonstrated by Britain’s inability to mobilize local Chinese support to defend Hong Kong from the Japanese in 1941.47 Thus, while the Hong Kong population was glad to have the relatively benevolent British rule of law replace the brutal occupation of the Japanese, there were reservations.

To address this problem of loyalty, the Hong Kong government, in addition to promoting economic recovery, restructured what Tsang has called ‘the uglier side’ of its pre-war rule. Harcourt’s ‘1946 outlook’ included, for example, the repeal of laws which permitted opium smoking and banned non-Europeans from the Peak District.48 Once reinstated, Governor Young similarly sought to provide ‘practical effect to the general desire of [Hong Kong’s] inhabitants to remain under British rule and to resist absorption by China’.49 One of his first actions was to rescind banning orders from the 1920s and 1930s against some twelve trade unions.50

For Young and others, however, a bigger gesture was required and, as we will see in Chap. 7, British policy-makers seriously contemplated the introduction of limited self-government. While short-lived (owing to Young’s successor) and perhaps impossible (owing to China), the idea, similar to that in Cyprus, nevertheless reflected Britain’s general trend (outside of Africa) to loosen control in response to the challenge to traditional colonialism mounted by colonial nationalists and, more seriously, the Soviet Union. Liberalization and self-government were Britain’s positive weapons in the imperial Cold War; however, the eventual failure of this ‘new deal’ in Hong Kong (as in Cyprus) reflected the inherent limitations of British colonialism in its struggle against the seemingly more progressive Soviet imperialism.

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