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

British Anti-Communism: From Enemy to Ally to Enemy

Between 1941 and 1946, British colonial policy-makers attempted to soften their rule to counter anti-colonial criticism and to encourage loyalty among British subjects. While the (often vague) promises of greater selfgovernment and Churchill’s bombastic wartime claims of British imperial revival did much to rally enough colonial support to make the empire valuable during the Second World War, British policy-makers were disappointed in the response from many of its Asian territories, especially of the Malayan and Hong Kong ‘indifference’ to Japanese occupation and the Indian opposition to the war effort.1 And while there was much praise heaped upon the Cyprus Regiment for its efforts and sacrifices, British policy-makers found significant fault with the communist influence within it.

Reform, however, masked a reassertion of British imperialism. The persistence in Hong Kong of racial stereotypes of the Chinese as untrustworthy and in Cyprus of the view of Greek-Cypriots as ‘bogus Greeks’ justified for many British elites and government officials the need for Britain’s supposedly beneficial influence. On the one hand, the ‘1946 outlook’ in Hong Kong and the legalization of political parties and municipal councils in Cyprus could be interpreted as self-reflective, rooted in trusteeship and paternalism, and aimed to build trust.2 On the other hand, these early actions were used to justify the continuation of British colonialism and dull anti-colonial criticism (especially from communist movements) both inside and outside of the two colonies.

© The Author(s) 2017

C. Sutton, Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-33491-2_5

AKEL and the CCP nevertheless took advantage of the war and its impact on British colonial rule to popularize their sociopolitical agendas. During the war, British anti-communism was relegated in order to cooperate with communists (such as accepting communist recruits to the Cyprus Regiment and cooperating with the East River Column in Hong Kong) to combat common and more immediate dangers in the form of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. After the defeat of Germany and Japan, however, anti-communism returned to the forefront of the British official mind, which also explained the Foreign Office’s eventual volte-face regarding Britain’s retention of both Hong Kong and Cyprus.

In Hong Kong, while Young’s brief post-war government saw ‘a world of grey men’ and sought to win their allegiance through reform, British officials both in Grantham’s administration as well as in Whitehall saw mostly red (see Chap. 7). The CCP’s increasing influence in Hong Kong, through its patriotic and pro-labour image as well as its influence over smaller dissident political parties, caused some concern for Young’s administration. However, in the perceived context of greater Soviet meddling and intensifying communist-led anti-imperial agitation, the CCP soon became the Hong Kong government’s primary problem. The Foreign Office concluded that ‘counter action must be taken before the plans of the [CCP Executive] Committee reach the stage of direct action. This can only be done by means of adequate security intelligence backed by the use of police powers.’3 On this last point, the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, and the Hong Kong government finally agreed, and by the middle of 1948, Grantham abandoned the ‘policy of strict neutrality in Chinese politics’ and implemented largely repressive measures to counter the CCP in Hong Kong.4

Similarly, AKEL’s political and social successes, under its many guises, as well as its proficiency in capitalizing on British heavy-handedness returned the Cypriot communists to the top of the list of Britain’s colonial troublemakers. Richards, the chief assistant secretary of Cyprus and acting colonial secretary, wrote:

Whatever else the post-election period will produce, the most prominent feature will be increased clamour for enosis, indisputably at the forefront of the [AKEL’s] National Unity Party’s policy. Their invitation to Nationalists and the Church to form a joint front on this issue has so far had a cool reception. Division may however spell greater danger than unity, as each faction may be encouraged to proceed to further excesses in demonstrating the sincerity and efficacy of its ‘patriotism’, and a highly combustible atmosphere may result.

Within a month, the Cypriot Nationalist Party, Pancyprian Farmers’ Union, and Pancyprian Greek Socialist Vanguard instructed their members to shun Akelists because ‘attempts by outsiders, particularly those professing foreign ideals, to infringe on their prerogative must be squashed’.5

Britain, too, wanted to squash AKEL. However, from its beginning in 1941, AKEL displayed a great resilience to British legal containment tactics, a wide appeal to the rural population, and a proficiency in working within the system; it was moderate, irreproachable, and organized. AKEL also revealed the weaknesses of British colonialism, as an out-of-touch, reactionary, and repressive regime. Indeed, the colonial government’s response during this period included Woolley’s requests for greater powers and Turnbull’s calls for suppression.

As will be discussed in Part II, the response of the colonial governments in both Cyprus and Hong Kong was for greater legal powers and repression. The Colonial Office, on the other hand, became increasingly convinced of the benefits of positive action (at least in theory, having little practical advice to offer) as well as increasingly aware of wider pressures and limitations on British colonialism in the imperial Cold War. It therefore often acted as a brake on the colonial governments’ reactionary instincts. Sir Douglas G. Harris, an expert on Palestine, argued in mid-1945 that ‘[t]he opening of a new irrigation scheme or a health unit gives rise to the only type of public meeting in Cyprus at which one can be certain of not hearing the word enosis’.6 The consensus was, as Martin put it, that ‘[w]e must try to give our administration in the island an appearance of greater and not of less liberality’, while also keeping firm measures in reserve.7

While Martin was writing on Cyprus, such sentiments in the Colonial Office were certainly also applicable to Hong Kong, not to mention the rest of the colonial empire. The nature of British colonial rule reflected the nature of ‘the British way of life’, which policy-makers sought to project as the ideal third way between the oppression of Soviet communism and exploitation of US capitalism. Constructive and inclusive policies were key in the Cold War competition of imperial-ideological legitimacy.

British colonial policy-makers therefore presented to Hong Kong and Cyprus ‘new deals’, which included further legal reforms and the promise of increased self-government, in order to win local hearts and minds in the wider war of rival imperialisms. Both ‘new deals’, however, failed. And they failed mostly due to British policy-makers’ aversion to giving up control as well as to risking subsequent communist electoral victories. In Hong Kong, it was Governor Grantham’s repressive inclinations and wily politics which trumped his predecessor’s London-backed constitutional reforms, while in Cyprus, British unwillingness to work with a cooperative AKEL spoilt the prospects of a constitution. Instead, both colonial governments abandoned tactics of reform for politics of force, in order to meet their perceived communist threats on the cultural battlefields of the Cold War.8


  • 1. Jackson, The British Empire and the Second World War, p. 34; Keith Jeffery, ‘The Second World War’, in: Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (eds), The Oxford History of the British Empire. Volume IV: The Twentieth Century (Oxford, 1999), p. 306.
  • 2. Tsang, A Modern History of Hong Kong, p. 200; Diana Markides and G. S. Georghallides, ‘British Attitudes to Constitution-Making in Post-1931 Cyprus’, Journal ofModern Greek Studies, 13/1 (1995), pp. 73-74.
  • 3. Foreign Office, report, ‘Communist Strategy in S.E. Asia’, undated [sent to Colonial Office on 30 November 1948], CO537/2651, TNA.
  • 4. Tsang, ‘Strategy for Survival’, p. 311.
  • 5. PSRs, June and July 1946, CO67/323/7, TNA.
  • 6. Harris, minute, 31 July 1945, CO67/323/4, TNA.
  • 7. Martin, minute, 1 December 1945, CO67/323/6, TNA. See also: Sir Arthur Dawe (deputy under-secretary of state at the Colonial Office), minute, 3 December 1945; Creech Jones, minute, 6 December 1945, CO67/323/6, TNA.
  • 8. Furedi, Colonial Wars, p. 4.
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