Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The 1967 Riots and the Limits of Colonial Rule

Those who try to sell everyone the notion that Hong Kongers are politically apathetic would do well to remember 12th July, 1967. On this day, 38 years ago, the colonial government of Hong Kong effectively declared martial law. The Governor's office and the Colonial Secretary declared in Legco that they would invoke emergency powers to arrest, detain and stop the Red Guard-inspired leftist rioters that had thrown Hong Kong into chaos with their bombings. A year earlier, Hong Kongers had watched with apprehension as three days of rioting had effectively turned Macau from a Portuguese into an effectively Chinese enclave. A price hike on the Star Ferry also caused spontaneous riots to coalesce that were only suppressed with the help of hundreds of police officers, including Police Tactical Units (the price hike was rescinded). But it was thought that the wave of revolutionary fervor unleashed on the mainland would never make it to the colonial bastion of Hong Kong.

However, those analysts were wrong. After months of tolerating rioters and protesters, and following the death of rioters, government servants and innocent bystanders, the government invoked special powers to stop the protesters and terrorists. It also called on all of the traditional loci of Chinese authority in the Colony, including the kaifong associations of the various neighborhoods, and the Heung Yee Kuk rural associations to stop Communist sympathizers. They also used an iron fist, detaining a number of people without trial and using Guantanamo-type tactics to stop the dissent. Secondary school children were arrested and approximately 50 people died with hundreds wounded during this critical episode.

While the colonial government met dissent with force and strong authority, they also recognized that there were substantial reforms necessary to re-establish their long-term legitimacy. It had helped that Zhou En-Lai sent a message to Hong Kong that the protests in Hong Kong were not supported by Beijing - if Mao had wanted Hong Kong back at any time in 1967, he could have taken it back.

It's important to note that previous generations of Chinese had made Hong Kong their home, but before 1949 many ended up returning to their villages in China; Hong Kong had just been a waystation, a place to make money before returning home. While there had been riots before, there had never been that much demand from many of these transients for proper political representation. But a new generation that had grown up in the Iron Curtain era between Hong Kong and China saw the city definitely as their own, and they demanded more than just peace and security. They wanted reform, greater recognition and social and economic justice. Both London and the Hong Kong government recognized that a new social contract was necessary with the local population, and undertook a number of steps to decrease the obvious 'colonial' and unrepresentative nature of government. On our Central walk, we talk about how the cricket pitch in the middle of Central where British batsmen batted for boundaries during the height of the riots with angry demonstrators all around, was turned into Chater Garden. By 1971, it had also been decided that nevermore would the word "Colony" be used in reference to Hong Kong; it would subsequently be known as merely a "Territory." By 1973, Cantonese was finally made an acceptable second language in Legco.

A number of policemen that had stemmed the tide of leftist demonstrators and terrorists in 1967 were later exposed for the massive amount of graft and corruption that they had profited from. It was a difficult position for the government of the "Territory", but something had to be done about prima facie evidence that the supposedly fair and just British administration was actually rather rotten. Concepts of Common Law and the distant hand of British justice were already hard for many recent immigrants from China to swallow. When compounded by corruption in Hong Kong government at the highest levels, it was natural that a substantial portion of the local population turned to triads for justice (in the 1960s, an estimated 20% of the population were members). For those wanting a popular local view of this period and the endemic police corruption that characterized it, watch the movie Lee Rock and its sequels.

In simplest terms, the ability of the British to govern without a democratic mandate was based on a formula of generating economic success and law and order. However, just as economic growth had been faltering and a new generation of locals was demanding more from their government, the idea of British justice was made a mockery of by systemic corruption. Their ability to continue governing the 'Territory' all the way until 1997 required a substantial and increasing level of concessions to local representation and administration.

We view this critical juncture in Hong Kong history as being very illustrative of the theory that modernization and economic growth brings about a middle class that demands, and successfully extracts, higher standards from government. Even though Hong Kong did not become a democracy as a result, it definitely brought about more egalitarian government. Also, the events of 1967 exploded the myth that the British had complete control over an apolitical populace. One can invoke emergency powers and martial law, but without legitimacy, a polity as complex as Hong Kong just grinds to a halt. It's a repeating pattern in history - 1922, 1925, 1967 and 2003. We hope Mr. Tsang remembers where he was on July 12, 38 years ago, and uses his reserve of legitimacy well.

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