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

Defence and Immigration

Hearts and minds in a cold war, however, were no match for bodies and guns in a hot one. As the CCP made advances in the Chinese Civil War, Hong Kong’s vulnerability to communist invasion and/or to a flood of refugees became an urgent concern for British policy-makers.

In September 1948, Grantham warned the Colonial Office that the potential for disaster in Hong Kong, which was ‘possibly to a greater extent than other places’, could at any moment require emergency legislation and military procurements without hesitation. In his nightmare scenario, internal violence would correspond with invasion by communist guerrillas, thereby involving security forces ‘in two simultaneous operations totally different in nature’. This would have been exacerbated by ‘trying political circumstances’ which might result in numerous defections from the police force. Because the loyalty of Chinese police officers ‘cannot therefore be fully guaranteed in all circumstances’, his government decided that less than one-third of them were to be given firearms.29

The threat posed to Hong Kong by the Chinese Red Army’s southward advances divided Attlee’s government. In March 1949, Creech Jones argued in the Cabinet that:

[i]t seemed to be wiser to hold the balance between the different parties [the KMT and the CCP] so long as no attack was made on the Government. Meanwhile, certain restrictions were being imposed on overt political activities, and every endeavour was being made to raise the standard of life in Hong Kong by social and economic measures so that it would be apparent that life under British rule was preferable to life in neighbouring areas dominated by communism.

Attlee was unconvinced of this nuanced approach. He sarcastically asked, ‘What [was the] long-term object? Keep it [Hong Kong] flourishing to hand over to [the Communists]’. Bevin, Creech Jones, Morrison, and Alexander had a difficult time countering Attlee’s unsophisticated understanding that their approach did not ‘excuse sheltering Communists’. Nevertheless, the Cabinet agreed to invite Creech Jones ‘to consider further what action might be taken to lessen and counter Communist activities in Hong Kong’.30 Here again, British policy in Hong Kong was meant to be outwardly neutral, while conducting covert actions explicitly intended to limit the CCP’s influence and power.

Grantham and his defence committee had further concerns with the state of the British military in Hong Kong, especially as one garrison had been sent to Malaya in July 1948 to reinforce British forces in the emergency there. The remaining military presence comprised only two infantry battalions and one artillery regiment and was proving ineffective in containing the marked increase in extortion, bombings, and murders by so-called communist ‘bandits’ between March and June 1949.31

According to Grantham, this increase in violence—combined with the CCP crossing the Yangtze River in China, the fall of Nanking, the impending fall of Shanghai, and the People’s Liberation Army’s attack on and 101-day detainment of HMS Amethyst—prompted ‘moderate unofficial opinion’ by May 1949 to recognize that the fall of China was unavoidable and that the CCP was not a party of ‘comparatively mild agrarian reform’. Grantham predicted that the communist army would reach Hong Kong’s border between September 1949 and February 1950 and argued that ‘force must be the basis of dealings with Communists in the Far East, just as in Eastern Europe’. He prodded Creech Jones by adding that people in Hong Kong had no confidence in ‘British prestige nor British military strength’ to protect British interests.32

The Cabinet shared Grantham’s concerns, especially in light of the humiliating Amethyst incident. Thus on 5 May 1949, Alexander announced in the House of Commons the decision to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. In fact, the Cabinet decided to strengthen the garrison twice, on 28 April and 26 May.33 All told, the garrison expanded to some 30,000 troops and included heavy artillery, tanks, and air and sea support.34

Grantham, however, was unaware at first of a concurrent discussion in Whitehall about the dwindling confidence in his leadership. By May, the British chiefs of staff were ‘seriously concerned’ about how a local command divided between a civil governor and a military commander- in-chief was hampering Hong Kong’s defence. The chiefs informed the China and Southeast Asia Committee that ‘the time had come when the Colony ought to be regarded primarily as a fortress’, which would include the replacement of Grantham with a military governor who would also be the commander-in-chief of the Hong Kong garrison.35

The idea met much resistance, especially from Grantham himself.36 After considerable debate, the chiefs changed their position, and London decided to retain Grantham, not least because there was no suitable replacement with a similar ‘deep and intimate knowledge of Hong Kong’.37 The most important reason, according to the chiefs of staff, was that a military governor would undermine their main goals: trying to enlist the moral support of the Commonwealth and the United States for our stand at Hong Kong and to convince them that what we were doing was not Colonialism or Imperialism but resistance to aggression in accordance with the spirit of the United Nations.38

London thus compromised and appointed what amounted to a military governor (that is, a commander over all of Hong Kong’s land, air, and naval defence forces) to serve alongside Grantham.39

After much protest and negotiation, Grantham reluctantly agreed to such an appointment. Grantham continued to resist, however, the chiefs’ pressure to tighten immigration control.40 He had already given some ground in April, when his government enacted the Immigration Control Ordinance—adding to the long list of newly acquired ordinances to combat communist influence in trade unionism, public order, and education. This new ordinance required all immigrants, including those from China, to have legal travel documents.41 Perhaps shaken by Whitehall’s lack of confidence in his leadership, Grantham finally reversed his position in June 1949 and instituted a curfew and a registration system for villages within four miles of the Chinese border, parts of which he ordered to have wired.42

In August, Grantham’s government also enacted the Registration of Persons Ordinance, which required all adult residents (twelve years old and older) to register, including their thumbprints and photographs, for identification cards. The ordinance also empowered the police to search ‘any place in which it is suspected there may be evidence of contravention of the Ordinance’.43 Together, the immigration and registration ordinances marked a significant shift in Hong Kong immigration policy; Grantham’s reservations notwithstanding, the British government asserted immigration control over ‘persons of Chinese race’.44

Between October 1948 and August 1949, Grantham replaced Hong

Kong’s open border with a comprehensive system for immigration control. The amended Deportation of Aliens Ordinance, the partial closing and wiring of the Hong Kong-Chinese border, and the introduction of the Immigrants Control Ordinance and Registration of Persons Ordinance, reflected British alarm and uncertainty regarding the impending fall of China as well as British perceptions of Hong Kong’s weaknesses and CCP tactics. While education and trade unions were essential in fighting the Cold War, British policy-makers considered ‘the problem of people’ to be Hong Kong’s most immediate threat. The authorities thus sought to deny the CCP the sort of people (such as Chinese aliens and general discontents) whom the British believed to be most susceptible to communist influence and agitation.

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