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



Balancing the persecution of communists with the projection of British democracy and inclusiveness was particularly challenging for British propagandists. MacDonald, the British commissioner-general for Southeast Asia, claimed in June 1949 that it was ‘inevitable’ that the colony would become the focus of at least a propaganda war and therefore must ‘be the focal point for anti-Communist propaganda in the Far East’. Consequently, MacDonald voiced his reservations about W. Gordon Harmon, Hong Kong’s public relations officer (1948-1950), whose ‘special knowledge and admirable qualifications’ were not suitable for ‘the work we have in mind’. In the words ofA. V. Alexander, the British minister of defence, Harmon was never going to ‘set the Thames on fire’. MacDonald supported Grantham’s suggestion that to assist Harmon, a liaison officer should be established in Hong Kong from the British Regional Information Office in Singapore. The Regional Information Office had been created only one month previously by the Information Research Department to plan and produce British propaganda for Asian audiences, such as an illustrated Chinese-language edition of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for Hong Kong.20

This was part of a broader debate, linked to the earlier musings of Bennet and Fisher regarding Cyprus, over the value of negative versus positive propaganda. For example, Stevenson, the British ambassador at Nanking, warned that negative propaganda as outlined by MacDonald and the Regional Information Office might provoke retaliation in Hong Kong from the Chinese communists. Instead, Stevenson argued for ‘positive “Counter-propaganda”, i.e. pro-British and pro-Hong Kong, rather than [a] definitely anti-communist campaign’. Grantham agreed with this assessment but was concerned about the cost and stigma of turning his Public Relations Office into a propaganda machine. Instead, the governor wanted a separate office, or at least a separate staff, finances, and registry. Furthermore, because ‘the main weight of our propaganda will be directed against China’, Grantham expected the Foreign Office to bear the financial expense.21

The Foreign Office required this new ‘Anti-Communist Liaison Office’ to have an effect ‘in South East Asia generally’ and ‘some effect in China’. While agreeing that ‘blatant anti-Chinese Communist material’ should not be used, the Foreign Office argued that ‘we can scarcely let Chinese Communist propaganda go entirely unrefuted in Hong Kong’ and that this would not be achieved with only a ‘positive pro-British pro-Hong Kong’ line.22 The Foreign Office therefore wanted a balance between positive and defensive propaganda.23

By October 1949, it was agreed to appoint a Hong Kong representative of the Regional Information Office. The representative’s duties included: disseminating ‘publicity to counter Chinese communist propaganda, particularly in the Chinese press in Hong Kong’; advising ‘Radio Hong Kong on policy to counter Chinese communist propaganda’; collecting ‘propaganda intelligence material’ for the Regional Information Office in Singapore; and distributing ‘positive publicity and information about British achievements in labour, industrial and other fields especially intended for Hong Kong’.24

In addition to demonstrating the extent to which ‘strict neutrality’ was little more than a fayade, the language in this job description reflected British awareness and efforts to fight the Cold War’s cultural battles. Hong Kong Chinese ‘hearts and minds’ needed to be convinced of the progressive and beneficial nature of British colonialism, especially regarding labour affairs, in order to prevent any local discontent and to counter communist anti-colonial propaganda.

This was nowhere clearer than in Britain’s manipulation of Radio Hong Kong. Radio Hong Kong was ostensibly little more than an under-funded, out of touch public station founded in 1928 to facilitate ‘understanding between the Eastern and Western man’ and to keep the local population informed of the activities of the British government. By the 1930s, the KMT-CCP rivalry in media elevated the importance of maintaining British control of the airwaves. Nevertheless, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Radio Hong Kong, according to David Clayton, ‘sought to inform as well as entertain’.25

As early as November 1949, however, ‘to inform’ took on new meaning, and Radio Hong Kong listeners were unwitting subjects to British propaganda. The Hong Kong government predicted a ‘radio war’ with communist China and asserted that Hong Kong would ‘not allow itself to be browbeaten or over-awed by threats’. Chinese propaganda would be met by ‘purely factual and truthful’ counter-propaganda, and jamming, by counter-jamming. Illegal and secret radio transmitters would be confiscated, and their owners fined. The Hong Kong government stressed, however, that all negative counter-propaganda should describe conditions in the Soviet Union and its European satellites, not China.26

Earlier that year, the Foreign Office’s Russia Committee (which was created in April 1946 to monitor the perceived Soviet menace) came to a similar conclusion regarding British propaganda in Yugoslavia after the Tito-Cominform split in late 1948. In the words of the committee’s head, Christopher Warner, British propaganda must

avoid attacking Tito’s regime and the Communist ideology on which it is based and [...] concentrate entirely upon differences between the Cominform and the Soviet Union on the one hand, and Tito on the other, and on factual information about the factors which might constitute common ground between Tito and the West, without of course drawing the moral.27

Perhaps drawing on the success of this policy, Whitehall and Grantham agreed that a strategy of anti-Soviet but not anti-Mao propaganda was necessary if Britain was to drive a wedge between Moscow and the citizens of a future communist China.28

This nuanced negative propaganda, complemented by positive projections of the ‘British way of life’, was widely accepted as the best possible strategy in Britain’s imperial Cold War. And Hong Kong’s unique qualities—including its strategic location, its relatively strong economy, and the CCP’s interest in maintaining the status quo—meant that the British were able to pursue this positive-negative approach against local communists. In fact, the CCP’s policy to avoid antagonizing British authorities, despite the latter’s assault of repressive legal action directed against the former, allowed colonial policy to appear liberal. Especially compared to Cyprus, where AKEL actively incited government repression, the Hong Kong authorities were not given the opportunity to oppress large demonstrations and expressions of sedition from the CCP, who indeed generally ‘behaved themselves’. Instead, Hong Kong’s Cold War was generally fought by means like Radio Hong Kong and works by George Orwell.

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