Home Political science Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong: A Conflict of Empires
Within the framework of cultural warfare, one of the most direct ways in which British authorities attempted to influence local identity and to curb communist efforts was to dictate who was to be included and excluded from the colonies. Colonial migration also directly affected Britain, as colonial people were (if only technically) free to move about the empire, including to Britain itself. And as students and workers were especially likely to travel abroad for education and training, population control (including immigration policies and travel restrictions) was another key weapon in the cultural Cold War.
Beginning in 1919, despite the established principles of ‘equal rights for all British subjects’ and ‘civis Britannicus sum', the British government in London introduced a number of administrative policies aimed to limit the number of colonial peoples settling in Britain, particularly in response to those communities of ‘coloured’ seamen which were growing around the major port cities. The Second World War prompted the British government to increase further its ‘informal and generally invisible’ policies to limit the immigration of Asian and black British subjects. These black and Asian subjects, it was believed, were likely to cause social instability and, especially in the Cold War context, to encourage the spread of communism in Britain. For example, J. B. Howard, the assistant secretary in the Home Office’s Aliens Department, was convinced as early as 1949 that communists constituted ‘a large element in the coloured population’ in Britain.26
However, the Cold War was an inopportune time for immigration laws which were even ostensibly racially discriminatory, particularly given Britain’s economic and geopolitical desire to induce decolonized or soon- to-be-decolonized territories to join the Commonwealth.27 Promoting a more liberal and welcoming British Commonwealth with one hand and openly excluding non-white immigration to Britain and the Dominions with the other would have played straight into the hands of the communists and their anti-colonial propaganda.
‘The problem of people’ was a significant difference between Hong Kong and Cyprus. While their populations only differed by about 115,000 people in 1945, Hong Kong’s population grew at a drastically greater rate than that of Cyprus. Between 1945 and 1955, the population living on Cyprus’s 3,500 square miles rose from 435,000 to 530,000, while that on Hong Kong’s mere 400 square miles soared from 550,000 to 2 million. The enormous and concentrated population presented the Hong Kong government with unique challenges.
From the resumption of British rule in 1945 and still applicable in the early years of the twenty-first century, Hong Kong has faced what Grantham called the ‘human problem, a problem of ordinary men, women and children’. On top of the practical challenges of housing, infrastructure, and food supply, British authorities faced significant diplomatic restraints, given that Hong Kong’s swelling population was largely made up of Chinese people from the mainland. The ROC and PRC both viewed the ‘Overseas Chinese’ in Hong Kong ‘as part of their unfinished civil war’.28 Consequently, the British administration was forced to walk a fine line between maintaining peace and order via restrictive policies (e.g. requiring identity cards, introducing a curfew, and simplifying the deportation process) and avoiding specifically the indignation of Beijing for mistreating Chinese nationals. Furthermore, in a battle over migration, China would have always won; Britain was simply unable to prevent a mass movement of people from China across the border if Beijing so directed.
Related to immigration, travel was also a significant concern for British policy-makers. The British government in London did not want nonwhite British people, particularly students, to travel overseas with ‘a racial bitterness or political radicalism induced by their living in a racially hostile society’.29 This also applied to colonial people visiting Britain. The governor of Nigeria wrote in 1937 that:
[t]he harm that can be done, on his return to his own country, by one African student who has managed to accumulate a store of real or fancied grievances during his stay in England far outweighs the good done by a dozen students who come back successful and satisfied.30
Nevertheless, British policy-makers did encourage short-term visits to Britain for ‘receptive’ colonial people. Especially in the context of the Cold War against rival imperialisms, British authorities generally believed that a short-term visit to Britain would confront the colonial subject with an undeniable conviction of British cultural and political supremacy. After receiving training or education (or even simply experiencing the ‘British way of life’), colonial visitors were meant to return home to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the colony and to act as a brake on anticolonial sentiments. Both the Cyprus and Hong Kong governments sent trade unionists, teachers, and students to Britain for this purpose.31
However, in addition to a history of educating future anti-British nationalist leaders (such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mahatma Gandhi), visiting colonial people were also subjected to the anti-colonial campaign of the CPGB. According to MI5, by February 1948 the CPGB’s International Committee had formulated its approach to courting colonial nationalist parties. In addition to trade unionism and communication, the CPBG planned to intensify the recruitment of specifically African students visiting Britain.32 Leslie Harold Gorsuch, the head of the Colonial Office’s West African Department, argued that, while it was ‘obviously hopeless trying to prevent Communists from getting at the students in this country’, Whitehall should counter communist propaganda by addressing colonial visitors’ grievances such as inadequate living allowances, poor accommodation, and ‘feelings of racial inferiority’.33
Travel to certain other countries, however, caused greater concern for British authorities. International festivals organized by pro-communist NGOs and scholarships to study at universities in Eastern Europe and in communist China prompted an empire-wide effort to limit and monitor the travel of certain individuals. In May 1949, Creech Jones urged governors to discourage students from accepting such scholarships, to withhold travel facilities, and to monitor these students ‘so that on their return their activities can be specially watched’.34
Cyprus’s relatively smaller and more stable population, its legalized local politics, and the lack of an immediate external threat meant, at least in theory, that the security services could monitor Cypriot communists with greater ease. Beginning in 1949, the Cyprus government sent reports to Whitehall almost every month with the biographical and travel details of Cypriot communists overseas, and these details were sent via the Foreign Office to the relevant chanceries. But for Governor Wright and others, tightening control over the granting of facilities was inadequate. Wright’s tenacious requests for permission to prevent the re-entry of certain Cypriot communists as undesirable immigrants was one step too far for Whitehall, although some officials, like Fisher, were sympathetic.
A similar proposal was discussed in 1950 by the directors of education from Britain’s Southeast Asian territories to prevent the return of nationals who chose to further their education in communist China. Banning re-entry into Hong Kong, however, was a non-starter. Even though the Hong Kong- Chinese border was closed in 1949, it was still rather porous, and deported Chinese nationals often found their way back into Hong Kong without much trouble. Furthermore, the enormous and growing population made monitoring individuals a difficult process for the British security services.
Nevertheless, that each territory was responsible for its undesirables was non-negotiable for Whitehall. The rights of citizenship were inviolable, not necessarily out of principle but out of practical and ideological restraints stemming from the Cold War. In the war of rival imperialisms, British colonial rule could not afford to be seen restricting the freedom of movement of its subjects, not only because it risked feeding communist propaganda and provoking international condemnation but also because it invited disadvantageous comparisons with the welcoming and inclusive image of communist countries and organizations, such as the WFDY’s and IUS’s international youth festivals and Prague’s scholarships for international students. For the British, population control was an important but ultimately limited weapon in the imperial Cold War.
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