The Trouble with China

The future of British rule in Hong Kong was ultimately determined not by the metropole’s renewed commitment to empire but by China. London’s decision to recover the colony was only achievable with Nanking’s acquiescence, which the latter gave because of internal and external pressures. Thus despite its destabilizing potential, the Chinese Civil War (and how it factored in wider Cold War geopolitics) allowed the British to return to Hong Kong in 1945 and ultimately reinforced British rule thereafter. Nevertheless, colonial policy-makers were aware that Britain’s continued sovereignty depended on China—not only the consent of its ruling party but also the consequences of its internal politics—and this featured in their decision-making.14

After Japan’s defeat, the full-scale resumption of the civil war was a constant threat. Mirroring Churchill’s concerns for Eastern Europe, Chiang’s ‘indefinite anxiety’ was his race against the Red Army to occupy areas evacuated by Japan.15 This included Hong Kong, as the main forces of the East River Column, a Hong Kong-based communist-led guerrilla resistance group, was stationed at the colony’s border after capturing Shenzhen in August. If China was unable to reclaim Hong Kong from the Japanese, Chiang preferred the return of the colony to the British imperialists over its liberation and occupation by the CCP.16

So too did the US. With the death of President Roosevelt in April—who allegedly said that ‘he would go over Churchill’s head’ to petition the king and Parliament to support Chiang—and the fact that the Soviet Union was assisting CCP occupation efforts in northern China, the US’s traditional anti-colonialism gave way to quiet support for the British Empire for the strategic advantages it could provide in the Cold War.17 The KMT government was therefore in no position to reclaim Hong Kong, and Chiang’s announcement on the 24 August 1945 was unsurprising. He declared that ‘the present status of Hong Kong is regulated by a treaty signed by China and Great Britain. Changes in future will be introduced only through friendly negotiations between the two countries.’18 On 30 August, with the approval of Truman, the new US president, Japan therefore surrendered Hong Kong back to Britain.19

Despite Chiang’s acquiescence, Whitehall understood that the issue was far from settled. A Foreign Office report, written eight months after Chiang’s announcement, recognized that ‘Hong Kong is for China a question which closely touches her prestige and national self-respect’, rooted in the ‘national humiliations suffered’ under the ‘unequal treaties’. Moreover, if China officially requested Hong Kong, not only could Britain not count on continued US support, but China could count on that of the USSR. The Foreign Office based this assessment, in part, on an article published in February 1946 in Pravda about Chinese agitation for Hong Kong. The Foreign Office memorandum concluded that the article was evidence of ‘the apparently ruthless vendetta of the Kremlin against Britain and the British Empire’.20

Nevertheless, Cecil Harcourt, the commander-in-chief of the military administration of Hong Kong, reported three weeks after the Japanese surrender that the ‘[p]opulation in general seems glad to see us back and [the] harbour filled with British warships gives obvious pleasure’. He warned, however, that ‘we must bring much more than [the] ability to maintain order if our welcome is to endure’. He estimated that bombs, fire, and looting had destroyed about 15 per cent of properties across the colony, with some areas as high as 60 per cent. ‘Strong patrols’ kept the colony quiet, despite the slow reintroduction of the Hong Kong dollar, limited working infrastructure, inadequate food supply, and business being ‘at a standstill’.21

There was indeed much work to be done if Hong Kong was going to become a British bulwark against Soviet expansionism in East Asia. The question for British policy-makers, however, was how best to fortify Hong Kong (i.e. through militarization, greater self-government, and/or economic growth), which provoked considerable disagreements between and within Hong Kong and London. The first of such disagreements occurred in Hong Kong between the returning civil governor and his successor (see Chap. 7). By then, however, fortifying Hong Kong was complicated by the presence of and tensions between rival Chinese political parties in the colony.

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