The Societies Ordinance

April 1949 also saw the enactment of yet another controversial law, the Societies Ordinance, as Grantham deemed the Public Order Ordinance to be inadequate in dealing with the CCP’s control of anti-KMT political parties. This was largely prompted by the success of Mao’s decision to form a multi-party government in China, which would include noncommunist dissident groups. While many, including the defence security officer and Grantham, predicted (correctly) that Mao’s ‘window dressing to impress the Western Democracies’ would not translate to any real power for these fellow travellers, the Hong Kong government was nevertheless keen to limit the CCP’s ability to infiltrate and influence political groups in the colony.64

Grantham thus informed Creech Jones on 1 April 1949 that his government had drafted a bill essentially to reintroduce the 1911 Societies Ordinance, which required compulsory registration of all local organizations of ten or more people.65 Combined with the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Ordinance, the Societies Ordinance effectively outlawed all foreign politics and gave the governor sole discretion without an appeals process to determine if a society should be prohibited.66 Grantham was ‘satisfied that there is ample justification for this legislation, apart from general world conditions resulting from the “cold war”’. The ordinance was aimed thus to prevent giving the CCP ‘a base in the middle of the town, which would be a focus for disaffection and for creating trouble’. However, Grantham explained that ‘[i]t will be emphasized that there is no discrimination, and that foreign political parties of all views are equally prohibited’.67

The Societies Ordinance also increased the authorities’ power in controlling ‘singing groups and dramatic societies which are known to be vehicles for Communist propaganda and penetration’. Grantham admitted that while ‘the proposed legislation cannot be completely effective in preventing the spread of communism’, the Societies Ordinance was ‘an essential method of control’.68

After a month of debate in the Colonial Office, mostly over the bill’s wording, Creech Jones sent his approval to Grantham on 20 May 1949, with the one stipulation that the ordinance should allow individual membership to foreign societies which had no connection to the colony.69 Three days later, Creech Jones relayed Grantham’s concerns almost verbatim to the Cabinet (not for permission but to inform his colleagues of ‘measures against subversive activities’ in the wider discussion on Hong Kong’s defence). Creech Jones’s memorandum outlined that the Societies Ordinance was ‘essential [...] not only to forestall a demand for the establishment by the Chinese Communist Party of an office in Hong Kong, but also to control the infiltration, under respectable disguises, of Communists’.70 The ordinance was enacted in Hong Kong on 27 May.

The Societies Ordinance received immediate condemnation in the procommunist press in Hong Kong. In fact, an editorial published on 29 May in Wen Wei Pao on the unnecessary and ‘undemocratic’ ordinance marked the first overt interference of the left-wing press in Hong Kong’s domestic politics.71 Furthermore, a seized CCP directive allowed the Hong Kong authorities access to the party’s views on the matter. It stated that:

[t]he Societies Ordinance is of an anti-Communist, anti-people, antidemocracy and anti-freedom nature. It persecutes the people of Hong Kong and turns Hong Kong into a ‘police state’. Furthermore, it is a sort of provocation to the people of New China, and the entire people of China. It is a very unfriendly act.

The directive included the CCP’s plan to ‘extensively and resolutely make use of the open and legal tactics and exert our best efforts to struggle for registration’—with the forewarning that its ‘anti-oppression struggles may be launched at any moment’.72

These ‘struggles’ were never launched, and the Societies Ordinance, combined (more importantly) with the CCP’s determination to maintain its overt activities within the limits of the law, ‘forced them to continue working as an underground political party in Hong Kong [...] and this underground nature has continued till the present day’.73 Nevertheless, the Societies Ordinance reflected British policy-makers’ recognition that the colonial government could not compete with the pervasive reach of communists on the cultural battlegrounds of the Cold War.

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