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

British Anti-Communism: Containment Through Repression

The most striking similarity between Hong Kong and Cyprus between 1949 and the mid-1950s was the British persistence in viewing communists as the most dangerous threat despite rising levels of violence caused by right-wing nationalists that eventually surpassed that of their communist opponents. This is even more remarkable given the differences and disagreements evident between the colonial governments and London. Whitehall increasingly viewed Hong Kong and Cyprus in terms of geopolitics in the Cold War, that is in British relations with the PRC, Greece, Turkey, the USSR, US, and UN. On the ground, however, Grantham continued to prioritize the protection of Hong Kong’s trade, while Wright and, to a lesser degree, Armitage focused on preparing the ground for a constitution in Cyprus. And while this had some impact on policy formation, especially regarding immigration and defence, all shared a similar aim: to counter the influence and impact of communists.

In both colonies, however, the containment of communism was more the success of external powers than British policy. For Hong Kong, as Tom Buchanan has observed:

Rees William’s repeated reference to Hong Kong as the ‘shop window of democracy in the Far East’ was just as meaningless as Bevin’s description of the colony as the ‘Berlin of the East’. Hong Kong only remained a British colony because of its economic value to China and because, for the time being, it suited both the Communists and the KMT to preserve it as a neutral base for their political operations.1

© The Author(s) 2017

C. Sutton, Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-33491-2_13

In addition to the strategic benefits, Hong Kong was an important market for Chinese goods and thereby provided the CCP with a consistent flow of capital. ‘And for that’, as Loh has put it, ‘it was worth putting ideology aside’.2

The British Cabinet recognized this even before the ROC’s fall, concluding that: ‘if a strong Communist Government established itself in control over the whole of China, it would be impossible for us to maintain Hong Kong as a trading centre unless that Government acquiesced in our continuance there’.3 Thus, British counter-action against the threat of Chinese communist expansionism had to be even more covert than British counter-action in Cyprus. It is therefore unsurprising that policy-makers in Hong Kong were more creative and more eager to attempt positive cultural warfare, for example through education and youth politics.

Economy, prestige, and politics, which were the fundamentals of maintaining a large empire, were, to varying degrees, the factors which dictated British (and CCP) action regarding Hong Kong during the early Cold War.4 In the end, Grantham’s assessment was right: ‘The strength of our position in Hong Kong depends largely upon non-involvement in political issues’ and greater involvement in trade with China.5 That China shared much of this outlook meant that Hong Kong’s sovereignty was not a point of conflict between rival imperialisms.

While its political future would similarly be dictated by external powers, Cyprus would have no such luck in avoiding violent conflict. As EOKA’s deadly revolt escalated in 1955, in the words of sinclair, the Cyprus government was unwavering in its ‘long-term job [...] to see that communism does not break through in this part of the world’.6 Cyprus was considered to be a vital possession (if only in terms of potentialities) for Britain from the very beginning of British rule, specifically to check the perceived threat of Russia’s southern expansionism into India, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Thus, from as early as 1943, British policy-makers were principally focused on countering AKEL in Cyprus, on the grounds that it posed the greatest threat to British sovereignty and good government.

This latter aim—specifically the introduction of a constitution and greater internal self-government for Cyprus—was Britain’s primary tool for countering anti-colonialism, whether from the local population, the US, or the Soviet Union. However, British policy-makers, while rather confident in their dealing with colonial nationalisms and the us, found countering communism a serious challenge.

For both Cyprus and Hong Kong, this translated to a shared understanding between six governors, six secretaries of state for the colonies, and scores of Colonial Office officials who served roughly between the CCP’s and AKEL’s rise in 1941 and the mid-1950s that communism was the primary threat. There was, however, considerable variance between their proposed solutions, but the limitations of British imperialism—its inability to offer something more attractive than what the communists (or Americans) were offering—meant that the Colonial Office gradually gave way to the governors, as the latter requested greater and greater repressive powers to counter the CCP and AKEL. These powers (relating to population control, labour, and education) also reflected a shared understanding across the British Empire of how to fight communists on the ground in the Cold War.

After 1957, Britain further streamlined its global power. Successive Conservative and Labour governments continued to ‘retreat from an empire of continents and hinterlands to an empire of points, from jungle to city-port and aircraft-carrier, and from formal to informal empire’.7 While by no means ending the imperial Cold War or Britain’s centrality and great power aspirations therein, it certainly changed the nature of Britain’s imperial and Cold War activities.

By the mid-1950s, the historical narratives of Hong Kong and Cyprus diverged. In the former, the Korean War and a growing confidence that the PRC sought to uphold the status quo in Hong Kong allowed Grantham to abandon major constitutional reform altogether and for Britain to retain sovereignty for decades thereafter. In the latter, however, the outbreak of the Greek-Cypriot nationalist revolt in 1955, while finally allowing the government to proscribe AKEL, set in motion the eventual demise of British rule there. By 1960, it was in fact Greece and Turkey that decided the nature of Cyprus’s independence, with Britain wrangling two small military bases near Dhekelia and Episkopi out of the eventual settlement.8


  • 1. Tom Buchanan, East Wind: China and the British Left, 1925-1976 (Oxford, 2012), p. 104.
  • 2. Loh, Underground Front, p. 84.
  • 3. Cabinet conclusions, 26 May 1949, CAB128/15/38.
  • 4. Ronald Hyam, ‘The Primacy of Geopolitics: The Dynamics of British Imperial Policy, 1763-1963’, in: Ronald Hyam (ed.), Understanding the British Empire (Cambridge, 2010), p. 77.
  • 5. Tsang, ‘Strategy for Survival’, p. 300.
  • 6. Sinclair to Martin, 19 November 1955, FO371/117677, RG1081/1624, TNA.
  • 7. Karl Hack, Defence and Decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore, 1941-1968 (Richmond, Surrey, 2001), p. 300.
  • 8. Holland, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus, p. 331.
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