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The Illegal Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance

Labour was another vital cultural battleground of the imperial Cold War. In August 1948, the Hong Kong government reported that, while still numerically disadvantaged, the CCP’s influence was greatest in the public utilities unions—particularly those of electricity, gas, tramways, and telephones—and therefore a left-wing general strike ‘could paralyse Hong Kong’. Not only could the KMT unions not match the power of its rivals, the defence security officer added that the KMT, unlike the CCP, was ‘not backed by a power which is in any way hostile to the continued existence of the British Empire’. Communist influence in labour had been previously identified as ‘an immediate potential threat’, but with its growing influence and the support (real or imagined) of the Soviet Union, the Hong Kong government now feared that it ‘may at any time become an actual danger’.52

Adding to those fears was the CCP’s successful penetration and domination of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, which was established in April 1948. Under communist control, the federation’s aims were to expand its influence over Hong Kong workers and then to mobilize their support for the CCP in China, while being careful not to transgress Hong Kong law.53 Chu King-man, a wartime member of the East River Column, was made the full-time secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions and proceeded to intervene in small disputes which, Grantham complained, ‘could quite easily have been settled without him’.54 Grantham feared CCP-dominated unions might ‘perhaps take advantage of the existing laws and stage a strike which, while ostensibly being purely economic, is in fact expression of solidarity with communist elements’.55

The government’s first step to curb politics in trade unionism was the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance, which was enacted in April 1948. On the surface, this ordinance required trade unions to register and generally followed British domestic law. There were, however, a few important differences. First, the ordinance required all trade unions to register or be dissolved. Second, it required trade union officers to be employed in the same field as the trade union they represented. Third, and most importantly, the ordinance only protected registered trade unions. And as the government registrar of trade unions determined whether or not to accept registration, and as the governor-in-council had the final say on appeals, the Hong Kong government now held significant power over organized labour.56

By November, however, Grantham informed Creech Jones that he no longer considered this ordinance to be adequate in dealing with the CCP’s rising power in trade unionism. Furthermore, Grantham did not want ‘to rely on Emergency Regulations to combat this tendency’. While recognizing that the Illegal Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance was ‘contrary to the expressed policy’ of London (which was why it had been repealed a few months previously), the governor believed that the law was necessary ‘to prevent the local population from being led astray by communist propaganda’.57 The ordinance banned foreign affiliations for unions as well as strikes which had political objectives, caused social hardship, and/ or sought to coerce the government. The ordinance also forbade public employees from taking industrial action.58

Many in the Colonial Office had concerns with Grantham’s request. Edgar Parry, an assistant labour advisor, warned his colleagues of the precedent this might set, particularly in Malaya, which had ‘no legislation prohibiting general strikes such as is asked for by Hong Kong’. Nevertheless, Parry considered Asian unions to be ‘a different kettle of fish’ compared to those of the West, and thought the ordinance, although seemingly ‘a retrograde step’, was ‘justified if it diminished the threat of communism in the Colony’. Others disagreed. Caryll Archibald Grossmith, an assistant secretary in charge of the Colonial Office’s Social Services B Department, argued that the ordinance ‘could only be defended here on the grounds of a threat by Communist Controlled Unions to coerce the Government by a general strike’, which had not yet materialized.59

Sidebotham’s argument, however, won out. He was of the opinion that:

[t]he difficulty which I think we have got to guard against is that in Hong Kong chaos could be produced by a lightning combined strike of utility company labour at the instigation of Communist China, deliberately planned to cause the maximum amount of inconvenience and dislocation in Hong Kong as part of ‘cold war’. It seems to me to be no use waiting for threats of these happenings if we are to deal with them at all, and Communist inspired strikes ought, in the case of Hong Kong, to be made illegal.60

The Foreign Office agreed but expressed concern regarding the presentation of such action. First, the Foreign Office wanted Nanking to be informed to avoid any negative reactions, as the ordinance would apply to KMT unions as well. Second, the Foreign Office was ‘a little anxious’ that the ordinance might ‘give an opening for attacks on reactionary Colonial policy [...] and thus have a harmful effect on our world-wide anti-Communist information services’. Peter Scarlett, the head of the Foreign Office’s Far Eastern Department (1947-1950), suggested that the governor should make ‘it clear that these measures were introduced for the defence of democracy and not as an attack on it’. He also suggested that Grantham’s statement should stress that the Hong Kong government attaches

the greatest importance to free and sound trade unions and to a healthy diversity in school teaching; but that these features of the free, democratic way of life are now under threat from totalitarianism which has recently much increased; and that certain discretionary powers are therefore necessary in order to prevent exploitation of these liberties by malicious and disruptive minorities at the instigation of foreign powers.61

On 23 December, Creech Jones, almost word for word, reiterated these concerns and suggestions to Grantham along with his approval to revive the Illegal Strikes and Lockouts Ordinance, which ‘should be presented to the public not so much as anti-Communist but as designed to maintain essential public services and the wellbeing and prosperity of Hong Kong’.62

To allay Whitehall concerns, a safeguard was added that the continuation of the ordinance would depend on an annual review by the Legislative Council. The ordinance was enacted in April 1949 and remained on the statute books for 26 years, indicating the centrality of labour affairs to colonial and Cold War interests in Hong Kong.63

 
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