Constitutional Advancement?

Having been restored to power on 1 March 1946 and after rescinding several racist and repressive laws, Young attempted to reform British rule in Hong Kong by introducing an elected municipal council. From a broader perspective, the so-called Young Plan was a strategy typical of Labour’s ‘new approach’ to empire in the Cold War, in its attempt to foster a sort of pro-British local nationalism through internal self-government.4

By the end of October 1946, Young sent his proposals to Creech Jones, the newly appointed British secretary of state for the colonies. The Young Plan included a municipal council comprising 15 Chinese and 15 nonChinese councillors, who would be financially self-supporting and eventually responsible for domestic affairs, such as education and social welfare. The Young Plan was endorsed by both the KMT government in China (although they protested the division of councillors as unfair to the ethnic Chinese who made up over 95 per cent of the colony’s population) as well as the CCP in Hong Kong (although they suggested greater representation for the working class). And after much debate, Young’s original plan was eventually approved in principle by the Cabinet in July 1947.5

By then, however, Young had retired, and it fell to his successor, sir Alexander Grantham, who arrived in Hong Kong the day after the Young Plan was announced, to implement the reforms. Grantham, however, believed that the hearts and minds of the Chinese people in Hong Kong, given their close cultural and geographical proximity to China, could never be fully won on behalf of the British Empire. Rather, his goal was to make them content to remain British subjects. In his mind, this would only be possible through ‘a benevolent autocracy’ which prioritized first and foremost the rehabilitation and protection of Hong Kong’s economy. Echoing Colonial Office arguments for Labour’s ‘new approach’ to colonialism, Grantham argued that so long as the British government maintained law and order, administered justice fairly, and did not over-tax its subjects, the local Chinese would be ‘satisfied and well content to devote their time to making more money in one way or another’.6

For Grantham, there were two main obstacles to his ‘benevolent autocracy’: Whitehall’s interference and disruptive Chinese politics. In regard to the first, Grantham indeed ‘displayed the greatest talent for defying the British government [in London] with impunity’.7 For example, despite Whitehall’s push for a ‘speedy implementation’ of the Young Plan, Grantham undermined the reforms, arguing in August 1949 that his modest counter-proposal ‘avoided the political danger inherent in Young’s municipal proposal: the danger that pro-Communist elements would be elected into the municipal council’. Playing on Whitehall’s fears, Grantham was eventually able to kill constitutional reform in 1952 (see Chap. 11).8 At the same time, Grantham, as we will see, would also downplay the communist menace when it suited him, specifically when trying to resist pressure from London to tighten immigration controls.

Despite this clash of wills regarding the means, Whitehall and Grantham did agree on the ends: a stable and profitable colony. They also agreed that Chinese communism posed the greatest threat. Whitehall’s anticommunist stance was obvious. And while Grantham often asserted that he viewed the KMT as the greater danger and expressed contradictory positions regarding the CCP, his actions, including a series of repressive and controversial laws, demonstrated that he was determined to fight communist influence on the cultural battlegrounds of the Cold War.

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