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The Death of Constitutional Reform

During the dramatic events of 1949 and 1950, Grantham was still in protracted negotiations with London regarding constitutional reform for Hong Kong. While he begrudgingly relinquished some autonomy to Whitehall over defence and immigration, he was determined to maintain his ‘benevolent autocracy’ and resist pressure to introduce greater self-government in the colony. The threat of communism, especially with the fall of China, certainly eroded enthusiasm in Whitehall for the Young Plan. In the end, it was the outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950 that finally allowed Grantham to kill major constitutional reform for Hong Kong.

Between June and October 1950, Grantham held several meetings with Colonial Office officials, in which he abandoned his previous counterproposal (see Chap. 7) in favour of a significantly restricted (i.e. completely ‘safe’ and ‘more easily controllable’) Legislative Council. The Colonial Office was largely on board; indeed, there had been a major shift in principle in the Colonial Office, from giving ‘inhabitants of the colony greater self-government’ to ‘introducing some kind of reform which would not in any way lessen Whitehall’s control over the colony’.67

However, while Grantham’s proposal was supported by the likes of Paskin, Griffiths was unmoved. Instead, he wanted to implement the original Young Plan, or at least Grantham’s original counter-proposal, because anything less (especially Grantham’s new plan) would be ‘retrogressive’. In addition to parliamentary pressure for reform, Griffiths had regional concerns in mind, specifically MacDonald’s warning ‘that Britain must plan quickly for the future of its East Asian colonies because they would be the only ones in the region without self-government’.68

The PRC’s intervention in the Korean War, however, provided Grantham and the Colonial Office with the justification needed to postpone any decisions on reform. While they had not linked the outbreak of fighting with Hong Kong previously, Grantham, from early 1951, was happy to accept the Foreign Office’s objections to the proposed constitutional reforms as ammunition for Chinese communist propagandists. One Foreign Office official called the reforms ‘undemocratic’ and easily spun as ‘the imperialist oppressors [...] brutally crushing the rightful interests of the Chinese in the Colony’.69

Postponement continued until 20 November 1951, when Grantham decided to return again to the reform question, prompted by a fear of communist agitation during the upcoming December visit of Oliver Lyttelton, the new Conservative secretary of state for the colonies. In fact, on 22 November, Churchill’s Cabinet authorized Lyttelton to make a public declaration of Britain’s resolve ‘to maintain their position in Hong Kong’—a statement which the British government had only danced around since the end of 1945 and, some feared, would prompt communist agitation. Lyttelton’s three-day visit was spent dodging specific questions about reform beyond his ‘sympathetic consideration’.70

In fact, Lyttelton was convinced that Grantham’s limited ‘reform proposals would be a lesser evil than political agitation for reform in the colony’.71 This was undoubtedly influenced by the Kowloon riot of 1 March. According to The Hong Kong Standard, ‘[t]housands of Communist-led students and workers [...] attacked police, servicemen and Europeans, overturned and burned vehicles, and smashed property’ in response to the government decision to deny the entry of a Chinese comfort mission from the mainland to assist victims of a squatter settlement fire still homeless from November the previous year. The US consulate believed ‘that the riot was “planned” by the “Chinese Communist authorities”’. Hong Kong police (who more than likely started the riot by its use of tear gas on a peaceful demonstration) put the riot down, killing at least one and arresting more than one hundred people, twelve of whom were eventually deported for their alleged agitation.72

This riot ‘exposed risks posed by civil disturbances that could be seen by China as the result of imperialist mistreatment of Chinese subjects’; it also ‘damage[d] the more progressive face of colonial rule that Britain was trying to promote’ in the imperial Cold War. However, instead of prompting a major overhaul of public housing, the riot revealed and reinforced ‘broader governmental beliefs’, certainly shared by Grantham, ‘in the unreliability of Hong Kong’s Chinese residents’.73

As such, on 20 May, Lyttelton took Grantham’s limited constitutional proposals to the Cabinet, which expressed interest ‘only in the complete lack of reference to the interests of the Indian community in Hong Kong’. The Legislative Council was to comprise

four officials, five unofficials nominated by the Governor and six [unofficial] members elected by the Justice of the Peace, the General Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Urban Council. The Governor would have the usual reserve powers.

Lyttelton reiterated Grantham’s assertions that ‘on any conceivable voting combination of the unofficial members, Government could count on a majority of the Council to carry any measure of real importance’. Indeed, nearly every single unofficial member during the period under study was ‘closely connected with the business community’ and therefore keen to limit political and economic risks associated with major reform.74

The Cabinet thus agreed to Grantham’s limited constitutional reforms.75 With this decision, Grantham was allowed to pursue his ‘benevolent autocracy’ of only minor reform, intended to restrain foreign politics in the colony and to avoid antagonizing the PRC. This general approach lasted more than thirty years.76 As such, Britain’s Cold War interests in the colony were largely secured, having retained Hong Kong (for the time being), demonstrated its geopolitical usefulness to the US, and built a government administration capable of suppressing local communist activities.

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