Home Political science Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires
The Public Order Ordinance
In addition to removing communist leaders, Grantham also armed his government with powers to deal with potential outbreaks of violence, specifically instigated by communists or other anti-KMT groups looking to ally with the CCP. The CCP certainly benefitted from the wave of anti- KMT sentiment in Hong Kong and southern China, especially among the handful of small Chinese democratic parties which had fled the civil war to take refuge in Hong Kong. Grantham noted in January 1948 that many of these liberals were ‘inclined to make common cause with the Chinese Communists in their desire to change the present Government of China’.32
Indeed, some of these immigrants were leaders of the Chinese Democratic League, a small political party which had been proscribed by the KMT government in 1947. The league, led by its general secretary, Chan Po-chen, sought in January 1948 an alliance with the CCP in Hong Kong against Chiang. The editorials in the league’s nominal newspaper, Hwa Shiang Pao, according to Grantham, followed ‘the Communist line closely on most issues’. Later that year, Marshal Li Chai-sum, a former head of the KMT’s provisional government in Kwangtung who had been expelled from the party in early 1947, established in Hong Kong the KMT Revolutionary Committee for the overthrow of Chiang and his government. Li similarly sought an alliance with the CCP.33 A few months later, Hong Kong police discovered information about a so-called Democratic
Allied Army. The British authorities suspected that this was the work of Marshal Li, but MacDougall was convinced that the army was not ‘a serious threat to peace’. Instead, he speculated that it was an attempt by Li to enhance his value and bargaining strength with the CCP.34
Nevertheless, as the JIC(FE) put it in August 1948, ‘Hong Kong is almost indispensable as a centre for maintaining contact between the C.C.P. and such anti-Chiang Kai-shek parties and groups’. The Hong Kong government therefore passed the Public Order Ordinance in October 1948. This ordinance prohibited quasi-military organizations and allowed for the declaration of curfew, closure, or evacuation of particular areas, including watercraft.35 The Public Order and Deportation of Aliens Ordinances, were, as Grantham put it, ‘precautionary measures [...] to curb activities by Communist or other political organizations likely to cause violence’.36
The Public Order Ordinance was controversial because it contained certain provisions without precedent outside emergency legislation. Grantham made it clear to the Colonial Office that in dealing with communist activities he did not want to depend on emergency powers usable only once an emergency broke out—an argument which would have resonated with colonial officials still dealing with the Malayan Emergency.37
According to Walter I. J. Wallace (who had served in the Burmese colonial service before his transfer to the Colonial Office in 1947 to be a principal in the newly formed Hong Kong and Pacific Department) and Kenneth Roberts-Wray (a legal advisor), the ordinance contained one provision which seemed ‘extremely dangerous’. It permitted police officers to ‘take such steps and use such force (including the use of firearms) as may be necessary for securing compliance with any order’. This provision ‘in effect put into the hands of the humblest Chinese constable the right to shoot (not in defence of person or [property]) but merely—for instance—if someone is obstinate about moving out of his home if ordered to evacuate’.38 The inherent distrust of the ‘native’ aside, such an explicit sanction for deadly force certainly ran counter to Labour’s ‘new approach’ of colonial reform in the Cold War.
However, John B. Sidebotham, the head of the Hong Kong and Pacific Department, was not ‘at all squeamish about endorsing the firm line’. He argued that, in regard to banditry—it is not clear if Sidebotham meant literal banditry and/or communism in the KMT sense—‘the Police must clearly, on occasions, be able to shoot fast—and first—if useful lives are not to be sacrificed’. In the end, Creech Jones allowed these provisions to remain in the ordinance in order to avoid the interpretation of weakness and ‘damaging public morale’, with the stipulation that once Hong Kong was ‘more settled’, the matter would be reviewed.39 As in Cyprus, British policy-makers’ desire for reform to compete with rival imperialisms was often overruled by their reliance on force to combat communism.
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