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British Anti-Communism: Containment Through Reform

Between 1946 and 1949, British colonial rule was further reformed in both Cyprus and Hong Kong as part of Labour’s ‘new approach’ to colonialism. In addition to economic recovery after the Second World War, London’s ‘new deals’, including the attempted introduction of greater self-government, had larger political purposes. Far from dismantling the empire, Labour’s new approach was intended to justify to all involved the continuation of British colonialism, especially in the Cold War conflict with its imperial rivals. These new deals were meant to pacify nationalist aspirations and, more importantly, to counter and contain communist forces in the local, regional, and global battlefields of the Cold War. This was Britain’s attempt to evolve its colonialism to compete in a Cold War dominated by Soviet cultural NGOs and transnational neo-colonialism. However, in both colonies, the resilience of these communist forces led to the abandonment of the reform strategy and a return to a more repressive approach.

Cyprus’s new deal (the series of policies which reformed British colonial rule, including proposed constitutional reform and further internal self-government) failed in its primary aim to undermine AKEL, but not for a lack of trying. In fact, it was the organization’s resilience—that is, the potential of AKEL’s domination of the proposed self-government system— which ultimately doomed the constitution. Hong Kong’s proposed constitutional reform suffered a similar fate for similar reasons. While it was as good as dead once Grantham assumed the governorship in 1947 (given his views of the colony), it was the threat of CCP domination and © The Author(s) 2017

C. Sutton, Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-33491-2_9

the general upheaval caused by the Korean War (as we will see in Chap. 11) which provided the justification for the Cabinet to abandon ideas of major reform for Hong Kong and to allow Grantham to implement his ‘benevolent autocracy’. In both cases, the threat of communism dictated the conceptualization and failure of colonial reform.

The failure of reform as a containment policy had important consequences for both colonies. The Greek-Cypriot Orthodox Church, led by a stronger archbishop, asserted itself as the leader of nationalist politics and hardened its anti-British and anti-communist resolve; however, it, like the KMT in Hong Kong, remained a secondary threat in the eyes of British policy-makers. In fact, some in the Cyprus government and in Whitehall contemplated cooperation, or at least an implicit truce, with the nationalists in combating AKEL, while in Hong Kong, there was actual cooperation with KMT authorities across the border in combating the CCP in the area.

Far from maintaining ‘strict neutrality’, the Hong Kong government’s new ordinances—Trade Unions and Trade Disputes (April 1948), Public Order (October 1948), Education (December 1948), Illegal Strikes and Lockouts (April 1949), and Societies (May 1949)—as well as the formation of the Education Department’s Special Bureau were created explicitly for the purpose of countering communist influences in the colony. In Cyprus, authorities discriminatorily targeted communists who broke laws against sedition and unpermitted meetings (usually for celebrations) as well as those who sought to travel to Eastern European countries. This was how the imperial Cold War was fought on the ground, where culture, politics, and imperialism intersected.

The Hong Kong government, however, was unwilling (unlike some officials in Cyprus) and unable to take the final step. As is discussed in Chap. 11, Grantham repeatedly rejected overt suppression as a useful tool for numerous reasons, such as the lack of legal justification, the loss of a listening post, and emboldening the KMT. The JIC(FE) added to that list the ineffectiveness of suppression, as known organizations would have simply re-established themselves under new guises or gone underground.1 Cyprus governors received similar reasons regarding their requests for permission to proscribe AKEL.

However, Grantham’s firmer covert measures against the CCP, particularly the Societies Ordinance, had already forced the party to continue its work in Hong Kong as an underground political organization. The much greater fear, as outlined by the JIC(FE), was that suppression might have led to ‘serious disruption of the Colony’s internal security’ by strikes in ‘all essential services’, invasion by ‘large guerrilla bands from South China’, student-led civil disobedience, and overt battles between the KMT and anti-KMT parties.2

Hong Kong was also increasingly entangled with wider Cold War tensions, and the Hong Kong government was becoming an important player in British activities against communism in East Asian education, immigration, and propaganda. Furthermore, as Scarlett observed, British policy, especially its publicity as pro-democratic and not anti-Chinese, was ‘of course dependent on the continued existence of an anti-Communist Chinese Government’.3 Starting in October 1949, British policy in, let alone its continued sovereignty over, Hong Kong was challenged by two new phases in the Cold War: the formation of the PRC and the introduction of hot proxy wars inaugurated in Korea.

While Cyprus authorities shared similar fears (i.e. of internal disruption, strikes, student-led agitation, and communist-nationalist clashes) with their counterparts in Hong Kong, the lack of external threat meant that the Cyprus government had a freer hand to be more overt and harsh in its treatment of local communists. While the strategic island seemed to feature more and more in international communist strategy, the repression of AKEL prompting an invasion by the Greek communist National Liberation Front, let alone the Soviet Red Army, was never a concern. Consequently, whereas British officials in Hong Kong were forced into exploring more innovative and less overtly anti-communist options, their counterparts in Cyprus, similarly becoming impatient with the reform approach, discarded it altogether.

Instead, the question officials in both colonies faced after 1949 was where to draw the line between too much and too little repression in containing, if not destroying, their perceived communist threats. For Grantham, the abandonment of major constitutional reform meant that he retained enough power to maintain internal security. For Governors Wright, Armitage, and Harding in Cyprus, the answer was proscription and imprisonment.


  • 1. JIC(FE), (48)10 (Final), ‘The Value of Hong Kong to the Chinese Communist Party’, 26 August 1948, CO537/3718, TNA.
  • 2. Jbid.; Loh, Underground Front, p. 76.
  • 3. Scarlett to Sidebotham, 16 December 1948, CO537/3729, TNA.
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