“Hong Kong in the Cold War” by Priscilla Roberts and John M Carroll (eds)

Hong Kong in the Cold War, edited by Priscilla Roberts and John M Carroll, is an academic collection of essays about the city’s history during the first half of the Cold War. The collection can roughly be split into two halves: Hong Kong’s security situation, and its cultural development.

As a British colony straddling the line between the two Cold War camps, Hong Kong put the British government in a difficult position. In practical terms, the colony was indefensible. Thus, Britain needed to deter China from invading, often by claiming that it had American military and nuclear support. However, when it came to the United States, London’s fear was not that Washington would not take Hong Kong seriously, but rather that they would take it too seriously. Britain was concerned that Washington would use a British commitment to defend Hong Kong as an excuse to base American troops and equipment in the city. This would have obliged America (and Britain) to defend the territory, closing off the option of a managed British retreat. Throughout the 1950s, the American government constantly tried to get a straight answer from London, only to receive, in the words of Professor Tracy Steele, “much soul-searching, plus head-scratching as to what precisely the Americans wanted to hear.”

By extension, the colonial government in Hong Kong appears to have spent the early Cold War period annoyed with just about everybody. They were annoyed with Communist China for trying to agitate anti-colonial sentiments in Hong Kong. They were annoyed with the exiled Nationalists for trying to use Hong Kong as a place to distribute propaganda and launch sabotage campaigns, such as the bombing of the Kashmir Princess. They were annoyed with the Americans, who saw Hong Kong as a listening post, hub for anti-Communist activities and a rest stop for sailors. And they were annoyed with London, who were largely unconcerned with Hong Kong and would unintentionally undercut the statements of the colonial government.

 

Hong Kong in the Cold War delves deep into the archives, and reveals a number of fascinating stories and messages. One is a 1951 cable from an exasperated colonial official asking London to

 

point out to the United States Embassy that 96 officials are not needed to look after a United States community scarcely exceeding 1,000. It is equally obvious that if these officials in fact earn their pay, they must be doing other work—i.e. work concerned with China.

 

Then there is the explanation from Governor David Trench’s explanation to London that the lack of anti-American riots in Hong Kong was because

 

the U.S. servicemen on leave have been (a) well superintended and disciplined and (b) rich.

 

The collection also discusses how Hong Kong’s cultural development was affected by the Cold War. Some of this was driven by the United States: Glen Peterson examines the “Aid Refugee Chinese Intellectuals”, a front for anti-Communist activity supported by the United States.

Hong Kong in the Cold War Priscilla Roberts, John M Carroll (eds) (Hong Kong University Press, August 2016)
Hong Kong in the Cold War
Priscilla Roberts, John M Carroll (eds) (Hong Kong University Press, August 2016)

But some of Hong Kong’s cultural development was driven by Hong Kong people themselves, as shown by Stacilee Ford’s chapter on the portrayal of female characters in movies by the Cathay Organization. Unlike the more deferential roles on American screens, Ford notes that Hong Kong films had more complex portrayals of women. While they were still expected to run a household and follow (some) traditions, female characters included aspects of modern attitudes about women, creating a “moderate Chinese modernity.”

This dovetails with Prasenjit Duara’s point that Hong Kong film studios created a specifically “non-Communist Chinese-ness across greater China, especially throughout Southeast Asia.” Given that Mainland China was Communist, some believed it was imperative to create an alternate understanding of Chineseness. This separateness was perhaps more to do with being Cantonese than with being from Hong Kong specifically, but it could be an antecedent to today’s rising sense of “Hong Kong identity.”

 

The book gives rise to the sense that Hong Kong is both part of and separate from China, and that this is entirely a function of the Cold War. The Cold War and Hong Kong’s tenuous situation meant the city needed to be socially stable. Issues like corruption, inequality, and a lack of accountability were embarrassments for the colonial government, and so needed to be resolved: often through strong independent institutions like the Independent Commission Against Corruption and good social programs like public housing. These efforts largely worked: Lu Xun notes how one railway strike in 1950 failed when

 

some of the striking employees visited Guangzhou and ‘observed the very unpleasant situation existing there.’

 

It is hard to think of an alternate scenario that would have led to Hong Kong’s current autonomy. One imagines that if Hong Kong were returned to the Nationalists immediately after the Second World War, it would have become just another Chinese city. But alternatively what would have happened had Mainland China remained in the Western camp? One expects there would likely have been more integration between China and Hong Kong, with less of an imperative to define a distinct non-Mainland way of being Chinese. The Nationalists might well have been able to interfere more openly in Hong Kong affairs, and the British might well have found it harder to resist.

Much of Hong Kong’s success is due to the fact that it border with Communist China was relatively thin and somewhat permeable.Thus, it was well-placed to be the connection between the Chinese and Western “networks of capital.”

But a border nonetheless is still a border. Hong Kong was separate from the Mainland with separate institutions and cultures. It is hard to see Hong Kong’s functional autonomy, and increasingly differentiated identity, arising had it not been for the Cold War.

Hong Kong in the Cold War is a reminder of the long shadow cast by historical events, and the length of time needed before the full extent of their repercussions are known.


Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.