The 1967 Hong Kong riots could have toppled colonial Hong Kong itself. The colony had been in a precarious place. The Communist Party bases part of its legitimacy on its stand against colonialism and Hong Kong is a galling insult to that legacy. During the Sino-Soviet Split, the Soviets would taunt the Chinese for taking these loud stands against imperialism and colonialism while standing by doing nothing about Hong Kong. And that is before we mention that the whole thing about Hong Kong being a place of laissez-faire capitalism and China being communist.
By 1967, the situation in Hong Kong was heating up. Its population had exploded as refugees fled the borders at the end of the Chinese Civil War as well as the economic disaster of the Great Leap Forward. The administration could barely keep up with providing basic goods like water, housing, and education to its people. Water especially was a real problem — during times of drought, water had to be rationed. Residents could only get water four hours every four days. By now, Hong Kong deeply depended on water supplied to it from the Chinese Dongjiang river and the colonial authorities knew that the Chinese government would simply refuse to sell the city-state its water if things ever got bad enough.
Hong Kong’s economy depended deeply on textiles and the cheap labor that its burgeoning population provided that industry. Jobs were not stable and people were not educated. Companies took full advantage of their workers’ precarious situations — working them 12–14 hours a day in sweatshop conditions. And whenever news came out of possible tariffs on Hong Kong textiles, the economy would swoon and people would be unemployed and out on the streets helpless and hopeless.
The Fire of the Cultural Revolution
Into this swirling cauldron came the Cultural Revolution, the historic tragedy launched in 1966 by Mao Zedong. Millions would die as Mao embarked on an unprecedented political campaign to sweep away his enemies in the Party and the country. He stoked the passions of thousands of youths in schools and universities by urging them to sweep away not just the capitalists, landlords, and rich peasants but also the rightists and capitalist-roaders within the Party itself.
And then when the violence escalated, Mao did not step in to tamp it down. He only threw more gasoline into the fire. Mobs of Red Guards roamed the streets ransacking homes and beating people to death.
Being that the Cultural Revolution was aimed at overthrowing capitalism, the fire naturally spread to the colonies of Macau and Hong Kong. Communist officials in neighboring Guangdong urged Communists to get on message. Bring the fire across the border.
Macau blew up. Demonstrations starting in November 15th 1966 got out of control. And then came the 1–2–3 incident in which a number of demonstrators were shot by police officials. The Portuguese had to deliver a humiliating apology to the Chinese and capitulated to Red Guard demands. The Portugese were left as mere figureheads — Macau had lost their autonomy. You can learn more the Macau handover in the video series.
Buoyed by this success, communists in Hong Kong began to organize the city’s workers.
The Fire Hits Hong Kong
Here is what they did. Communists first found a popular cause and seized on it. Usually it is a strike by workers justifiably looking for better labor conditions.
They join the groups of striking works and wave their little red books. They sought to turn each labor dispute into a full political demonstration.
Once that has been achieved, the Communists would make demands of the factory owners which include apologies, compensation and guarantees that the officials would not repeat their “crimes”.
Yes, there are legitimate labor concerns to be addressed but the Hong Kong Communists were not focused on fixing those issues. They wanted to create a broad movement — a revolution so to say. By May 1967, the Communists were regularly getting people out onto the streets to protest.
At first, the police did not know what to do. Both the strikers and the police were Chinese. The police were reluctant to crack down. Emboldened by their success, the Communists began to escalate. Throughout June and into July, they began to throw Molotov cocktails and attack people of all types — government or otherwise.
China decided to lend support to the Communists. Between June 29th and July 2nd, China ceased food shipments to Hong Kong and ignored the colony’s appeal for water during a drought. Red Guards ransacked the home of the British consul in Shanghai and staged huge rallies in Beijing. Chinese villagers would cross the border into the New Territories to attack police stations and other government areas. These are armed men with members of the People’s Militia, not hungry villagers with poles. In one July 8th incident, five Hong Kong police were killed and it is remarkable that events did not spiral out of control.
But as time passed into mid-July, it became clear that the Communists were not going to win. The heavy handed moves from China. The Hong Kong communists’ attempts to make the shortages worse by calling for the fisherman and farmers to strike. News from the mainland. Also the random, Red Guard-like violence. It all had turned the public’s opinion against what was happening. A reverse boycott began against Communist-run establishments and those organizations began to lose money.
The Colonial Secretary pushed to “grasp and retain the initiative” in its confrontation with a “small left-wing minority”. The first police raids began on July 12th and over the next two weeks, some 1,500 people were arrested. Left-wing newspapers were shut down. The police got special emergency powers. Leftist schools were shut down and the leaders were deported to the PRC.
The Communists’ extreme response lost them the city for good. They began to resort to violence. In August 24th, they set a popular Hong Kong radio commentator on fire. Then came the bombings with some 8,074 fake bomb threats and 1,167 genuine bombings in public places like markets and restaurants and theaters. They turned from genuine revolutionaries to terrorists. The public drastically turned against them and pushed the Hong Kong government to take a firmer stand.
Why Did The Hong Kong Communists Fail?
In the end the Hong Kong government prevailed. The bombings would end by 1968 but not after the deaths of some 15 people and injury of many more. 51 people in total were killed with millions of dollars of property damage.
The Hong Kong economy in 1967 thrived with exports up 22% and trade up 12.4%. The open Hong Kong economy managed to meet its food and water shortages, going so far to import kangaroo meat from Australia.
But the 1967 riots nevertheless left the British colonial government quite shook. They thought hard about what had gone wrong thus far and pushed for social and economic reforms, funded by the city-state’s growing wealth. Colonial Governor David Trench would start some of those reforms before his successor Murray MacLehose expanded their scope. I have written a bit about this before and hope to write more later.
So what did the Communists do wrong?
First, they forgot to approach the police themselves until it was too late. Without the support of the police, the British government could not have suppressed the riots. Attempts to organize and propagandize the police failed as not a single one of the ten thousand policemen joined the agitation. The resultant terrorism did not help their case any better.
The second error was Chinese nationalism. They could have aroused the pride of the Chinese people by exploiting the British government’s genuine mismanagement of an economy for the benefit of the workers or the fact that Hong Kong at the time hosted a large number of US servicemen. In light of the Chinese’s historic sensitivity about colonialism, this was a missed opportunity.
Third, once the Hong Kong Communists successfully got the people out onto the streets, they forgot what those people were striking for. Those people just wanted better pay and working conditions — not for their city to turn into a Communist paradise like what was happening on the mainland. What eventually happened was that the factory owners and labor leaders would come to an amicable settlement and get back to work. The workers were satiated, but the Communists kept pushing until it all fell apart.
In starting these riots, the Hong Kong communists thought they could bring change to the colony in the same way change had been brought to Macau. But their actions were misguided and rash and failed to gain the support of the populace and Beijing as they did with Macau. Mao teaches his revolutionaries to have patience and to organize. Hong Kong Communists did neither and so ended up being just street thugs.
Originally published at sinospheres.com on April 11, 2019.