N O V E M B E R 1 9 6 7
by Maynard Parker
Expecting the worst, the visitor returning to Hong Kong would marvel at its quiet, confident calm. There are no blackened hulks of buildings, no hateful stares such as mark the burned-out ghettos of a half dozen American cities. Indeed, the jewel of Britain's colonial empire seems to sparkle with all its luster. Ferries plow across a sapphire harbor crowded with ocean-going freighters, square-sailed junks, and deadly-looking U.S. warships just in from battering North Vietnam with their cannon and planes.
A new generation of Suzie Wongs, more alluring than ever in their mini-cheongsams, still pester fuzzy-cheeked sailors to buy them "one more" tea (masquerading as whiskey). Suits can still be made in twenty-four hours, and shops with showcases bulging with gold, jade, cameras, and watches still offer the luxuries of the world at a fraction of the cost paid elsewhere. Thc Hong Kong of myth, legend, and travel poster lives on.
Only slowly does the realization seep in that Hong Kong is a city besieged by local Communist guerrillas. Ubiquitous gray Land Rovers filled with steel-helmeted riot police armed with tear gas and carbines constantly prowl the streets. Instead of their usual wares of Tientsin rugs and carved ivory, the colony's Communist Chinese stores now plaster their windows with pictures of British police brutality, with crepe-draped portraits of slain Communist agitators, and with Maoist slogans urging the city's four million Chinese to "paint Hong Kong red from the earth to the sky."
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Return to Flashback: Hong Kong's Future, Then and Now
China itself has made no overt move toward the colony -- in fact, on
at least a dozen occasions Chinese Army troops have actually held back mobs
of mainland Chinese hopped up on Maoist brew. But months of agitation,
which has slowly escalated from labor strikes to militant demonstrations to
violent riots and armed terrorist attacks, have clearly signaled the
beginning of a Maoist
"people's war" against the British in their own colony.
The British fight with more than 12,000 police and 10,000 soldiers to preserve both the political status quo and extraordinary economic prosperity through a campaign maintaining law and order. Sortieing out from their liberated areas -- Communist storefronts, union halls, and newspaper offices, fortified with food and water and iron grills on the doors -- the Communists retaliate with propaganda, rumors, terror, labor strikes, and economic reprisals directed both against the British and against the great mass of non-Communist Chinese. Their hope is not so much to defeat the British in the streets or to force Hong Kong's Chinese through fear alone to join their side (although they dream of both), but to convince both committed and uncommitted that the British no longer have the stamina to hold on. A Labor government which only recently announced its intention of liquidating the entire British presence east of Suez by 1975 should probably not think twice about the disposal of Hong Kong should the colony cease to be economically self-sufficient.
When Hong Kong's riots first erupted in May, the reaction of the colony's residents was much the same as that of Detroit's or Newark's citizens: "How could it happen here?'' For despite the looming shadow of China, Hong Kong had always coexisted peacefully with its neighbor. China's tacit friendship was based not on love, but money. Far from creating trouble in the colony, China used its laissez-faire spirit to grub for money like any common capitalist. Although Hong Kong's Communists did operate through an intricate web which incluced various labor unions, newspapers, schools, and farm organizations, their main goal has always been to use the colony to earn hard foreign currency for China.
To accomplish this capitalistic mission, the Communists over a period of eighteen years built up a vast network of more than 300 businesses and banks in the colony. They operated travel agencies offering tours to China, retail and wholesale grocery stores selling China's foodstuffs, department and jewelry stores peddling China's manufactures and gems, and wholesale trading companies hawking China's products to the world's buyers. Each year these hustling Communist capitalist enterprises poured more than $500 million into the Communists' most important economic organization in the colony, the bank of China. Together with $85 million in remittances collected from overseas Chinese, the bank each year transmitted to Peking more than half of China's foreign exchange.
It was this immense annual profit for China which provided Hong Kong residents with sufficient confidence in the dragon next door to give birth to the colony's staggering post-war prosperity. "China will not lay a finger on Hong Kong," it used to be said, "as long as Hong Kong is useful to China." Why, then, did Hong Kong's Communists take to the streets this spring, killing the goose that laid their golden eggs and ending, probably for all time, the peaceful and profitable alliance between Hong Kong's Communist and capitalist citizens?
The answer lies with Hong Kong's two neighbors, China and Macao.
In China, Mao Tse-tung's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution had unleashed thousands of Red Guards to purge those opposed to his leadership. Looking and listening over the border through the eyes and ears of Radio Peking, Hong Kong's nine Communist newspapers, and the tales of returning comrades, Hong Kong's Communist leaders grew increasingly fearful. They realized that had they been living in China they would have been quickly branded as "revisionists," publicly humiliated, and purged. All rubbed hands with the capitalists each day; for all, profit was the key concern. Most important, all were named to their Hong Kong posts by the disgraced Tao Chu and the "revisionist" president of China, Liu Shao-chi.
Thus, this spring, as the reverberations from the Cultural Revolution grew ever louder, the colony's Communist leaders frantically searched for a way to proclaim themselves true Maoists, to prove their revolutionarv purity, and to forestall their own purge and possible recall to China.
In Macao, they had their answer. Many China-watchers in Hong Kong had long confidently proclaimed that one of the main effects of the Culrural Revolution was to take China's mind off any foreign adventures. But the blatant Chinese Communist chauvinism which the Cultural Revolution exposed, coupled with the desire of overseas pro-Peking Communists to proclaim their ardor for Mao, doomed the countries on China's rim to an eventual spillover of the Cultural Revolution. Thus, in December, 1965, when Portuguese authorities refused to allow a group of Macanese Communists to build a school, hordes of young teen-agers fitted themselves out with red armbands and red books and poured onto the streets.
In a series of bloody clashes, abetted by the bungling of Portugal's colonial police, Macao's Red Guards won a string of unexpected and unhoped-for victories which abrogated Portugal's authority in the colony in all but the most routine of official matters.
Looking to Macao and eager to prove their Maoist orthodoxy, the leader of the Party's infrastructure in the colony wondered whether they could pull a Macao in Hong Kong. Their chance to try came in early May when two labor unions with justified grievances called strikes against a plastic flowers factory and a cement plant and the workers marched off their jobs. Members of both unions -- one Communist and one non-Communist -- waved Mao's books and recited his quotations as they picketed. Although the colony's Communists moved very slowly in exploiting the revolutionary possibilities of these strikes, in one case taking five days to notice the Maoist workers, they finally picked up the workers' rallying cry and hurried their cadres, unionists, and striking employees into the street against the superbly trained British riot police. "People's War," with its riots, labor strikes, psychological warfare, terror, and assassination, had come to Hong Kong.
But, strangely enough, it proved to be a "people's war" without people, and this alone has kept the British from having another Aden on their hands. For the most remarkable fact about the Communist effort has been its complete failure to spark a responsive chord in Hong Kong's Chinese. Unlike Burma, Cambodia, and Nepal, where Maoism has burst the bounds of the Chinese Embassy, Hong Kong is a Chinese city; it is a colony, and it is contiguous to China. It should be ripe for revolution.
Yet, throughout the entire summer, the Communists have found few compatriots at the barricades. At the most, they have turned out about 5000 supporters, and as more and more of these have deserted the ranks, the Communists have been forced to pay bums, teddy boys, and sacked striking workers in order to put rioters into the streets.
Much of the reason for the Communist failure to win mass support lies with the apparent reluctance of Communist China to come to the aid of Hong Kong's Maoists. If Hong Kong's opportunistic Chinese thought the People's Liberation Army would invade the colony tomorrow, they would be on the streets with Mao's books today. However, Peking has shown little relish for getting more directly involved in the fray than with its now depleted $10 million grant for bankrolling strikes, and the endless babble of propaganda from Radio Peking. The only cheap little victory it can claim after months of huffing and puffing is the burning of the British legation in Peking after the Hong Kong government refused to release a handful of Communist newspaper reporters jailed for leading Communist mobs in the colony's streets.
No one knows exactly why China is playing the paper tiger. Certainly the current hysteria China is fomenting has erased any thought that it might call off a confrontation in order to maintain its economic interests in the colony. Some Hong Kong China-watchers believe Peking has not intervened directly because it fears a secret joint security agreement between Great Britain and the United States for the defense of Hong Kong. Others believe that the administrative and political resources of the PLA have been stretched so thin by the demands of the Cultural Revolution that it simply lacks either the energy or the desire to take the city.
A more likely reason for China's failure to take an active part in the Hong Kong disturbances, however, can be found in the pure Maoist theology generated by the Cultural Revolution. To a Maoist, a revolutionary Communist can find true salvation only by liberating himself from the yoke of imperialism by the application and rote learning of Mao's thoughts. As one of Hong Kong's newspapers put it, "We should depend upon ourselves to liberate ourselves." Hong Kong can thus come into Mao's grace only by liberating itself from within. To Peking, the task of local Communists was not to sit back and call for help from across the border, but to be Marxist missionaries for Mao, carrying the gospel to Hong Kong's heathen Chinese materialists.
Almost as remarkable as the Communists' failure to wage "People's War" has been the improvised brilliance of the normally lethargic British colonial government. Some observers attribute it simply to British unflappability and others to the reasonable responses of a bureaucracy; whatever, a government made up of the remnants of a defunct British colonial service has faultlessly countered every Communist strike, rumor, and riot. In doing so, as much by propaganda as by police work, the British have coolly driven a deep wedge between the hard-core Maoists and the supporters they so desperately need, Hong Kong's Chinese.
Stiff upper lip
The Communists had hoped to mobilize this potential mass of support by turning a Maoist confrontation against the British into a Chinese confrontation against the British. To deny the Communists a bloody incident upon which to rally the people, the government has consistently used a minimum of police force and used it only after it has succeeded in obtaining an LBJ-style consensus of "all the people." The play of each new action has contained three acts, not two. Instead of the Communists acting and the government reacting, the government has allowed the Communists to act, waited patiently for the public to demand action, and only then moved against the Maoists with the applause of the community ringing in their ears.
Even during the worst of the rioting, in late July, the police initially employed only wooden projectile guns and tear gas to oppose rampaging mobs waving iron bars and heaving Molotov cocktails. The government waited patiently for two days until citizens, from street hawker to taipan, were demanding police action. With public opinion solidified behind them, the police finally acted. Slapping a curfew on the city for two succesive nights, they opened fire with carbines and shotguns and began a series of raids on Communist union halls and stores which are still continuing.
The government's campaign to discredit the Maoists has been rendered easier by the fact that, except for the nine Communist newspapcrs (three of which the government has closed down), it controls most of the public media either directly or indirectly. It operates one radio station and supplies the news for the other. Although none of the thirty non-Communist newspapers are owned by the government, most publishers belong to the establishment and rarely rock the boat. Few have reported anything but the government line, and during the worst days of rioting, some did not even bother to send reporters out on the street: they simply ripped the news off the Government Information Service's ticker in their offices. With such a pablum press, the Hong Kong resident ends up reading only what the government wants him to read.
For the moment, British propaganda and police work have carried the day, but the battle remains far from over. Small-scale riots still break out intermittently; terrorist attacks against public buildings and government employees grow in intensity; within the last weeks more than 1500 bombs have been planted. Although most have been duds, some have exploded, and civilian casualties from bombings have become a new fact of life in Hong Kong.
To a certain extent the Communist agitation has already taken its toll. Business investment in the colony has nearly stopped. Major industrial firms have decided to build new factories elsewhere, usually in Taiwan or South Korea. The flow of dollars, which used to run $3 million a day, from overseas Chinese through Hong Kong's free money market has ebbed to a trickle. The colony's tourist business, which usually is its second largest moneymaker after textiles, has dropped off considerably as frightened travelers stay away. Hong Kong's luxury hotels have sealed off entire floors for lack of guests and one banker predicts "more bankruptcies in the tourist shops in the next six months than in all of Hong Kong's previous history." Businessmen sadly tell each other over their pink gins that "the skyline is still the same," alluding to the unpleasant fact that Hong Kong's perpetual building boom has come to an unplanned stop.
Even if the Communists were to call off their struggle tomorrow, it seems unlikely that business confidence in Hong Hong would ever return to its pre-May abundance. As one businessman put it, "It's like having a wife you thought was faithful and then finding that she's cheated. She claims it will never happen again, but you can never trust her as completely as before.''
For the riots have forced those who live in the colony to face the unpleasant reality that although the anomaly of Hong Kong may have a number of lives, it will not live forever.
Underscoring this new awareness of the city's precariousness have been the privately reiterated statements of colonial officials in Hong Kong that Britain will leave as soon as it becomes convinced that Hong Kong's Chinese no longer desire British rule. As one said, "Once they indicate [presumably through prolonged, massive, and widespread rioting] they want us out, we will leave. We have no imperial, colonial, strategic, or commercial reason for remaining even if Hong Kong were defensible.''
It has not been, however, the realization that Britain might leave before its lease on most of the colony expires in 1997, but the circumstances of how the British will depart that has most disturbed Hong Kong's Chinese, especially the middle class. Until now, most of these people have contemplated only two alternatives: British rule or Chinese rule following a People's Liberation Army march across the border. Upon these two alternatives they have laid plans either to run for it or to stay. Now in the wake of Macao and the colony's current troubles has come the unsettling revelation that a third alternative exists: a twilight status where there would be a sphere of British control and a sphere of Cormmunist Chinese control with a vast, no-man's-land in the area of law and order, where the capriciousness of Red Guard mob rule might decide the issues in the streets.
Even those Chinese who might have welcomed an outright Chinese take-over are not prepared to live in such a continual purgatory. Those who can are trying to get out. Visa applications at the Nationalist Chinese, Canadian, and other consulates whose countries encourage Chinese immigration have shot up 330 per cent.
The consulates have long since run out of printed forms and have had to mimeograph additional applications. Although the percentage of Chinese leaving is minute, those who are leaving are the very people -- doctors, dentists, architects, and scientists -- whose departure most hurts the colony.
For the great masses of Chinese, however, born in Hong Kong and without passport or profession, emigration from Hong Kong is not a possibility. They must stay.
Copyright © 1967 by Maynard Parker. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November, 1967; Hong Kong; Volume 220, No. 5; pages 14-28