The 1967 Riots and what we need to weather the gathering storm

May 30, 2016 13:40
Members of the Royal Hong Kong Police patrol the streets after the 1967 riots that claimed 51 lives. A portrait of Mao Zedong is seen in the background, with the slogan that reads "Chairman Mao is the Red Sun in our hearts". Photo: Internet

Hong Kong and Macau should think of how to guard against any spillover of a Cultural Revolution-like witch-hunt that China is now witnessing, half a century after the decade-long calamity.

Back then the British colonial authorities helped Hong Kong tide over the formidable tumult. But this time who will be our guardian if China descends into a new Cultural Revolution?

The way Hong Kong and Macau dealt with their internal unrest back then determined their vastly different destinies.   

Unlike Hong Kong, the Portuguese government in Macau knuckled under to the menace of the local leftists, or more precisely, underground members of the Chinese Communist Party in the tiny enclave.

Macau became a tamed, “liberated colony” even decades before the 1999 handover and Lisbon’s authority existed in name only.

Though it was said that the Brits once thought of the ultimate contingency plan of abandoning Hong Kong, the territory’s collective resistance forced Beijing to back down and enabled it to secure its freewheeling economic advancement since the 1970s.

Their respective actions decided their different political status post-handover: Beijing promised in the Basic Law free elections for chief executive and all lawmakers for Hong Kong but these pledges are nonexistent in Macau’s constitutional document.

Though Beijing’s promises are meant to be broken, these are evidence of Hong Kong’s higher status at least at the time of the two colonies’ handover.

The Cultural Revolution 50 years ago was never short of intrigues and clashes, and many still have vivid memories of the 1967 riots when the storm of class struggle from the north buffeted the territory.

Thankfully, London and the then Governor Sir David Trench pressed ahead with a resolute clampdown – British troops were deployed to maintain social order together with the police, and even military assault helicopters from a British aircraft carrier participated in raids targeting leftist strongholds in North Point.

The Communist Party’s bellicose local faction, the ultimate mastermind, had to call off the Hong Kong riots after the Red Guards’ subsequent arson attack at the British de facto embassy in Beijing, triggering a diplomatic crisis for which Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) had to issue a formal apology to London.

As the Communist Party struggle ravaged China, the majority of the Hongkongers stood by their colonial government while many in the mainland fled their hometowns in a mass exodus to the British colony.

Also in Hong Kong, local journalists and commentators – Commercial Radio and Ming Pao, in particular – covered the riots and condemned the violence.

Kuomintang members in Hong Kong – along with the shared antagonism of Western allies toward Communist regimes during the Cold War – all helped counter the leftist rioters.

Beijing’s reliance on Hong Kong for almost 80 percent of its foreign reserves amid a trade embargo was also a key factor for its last-minute decision to call it quits.

The new political purge taking place in the mainland today is somewhat covert, although instances of this veiled form of violence are already surfacing in Hong Kong:

– Local publication and sales of politically sensitive books have waned following the abduction of Lee Bo;

– Local media have stepped up self-censorship after Xi Jinping’s (習近平) "media’s surname is the party" call;

– Local churches have begun to toe Beijing’s official line and distanced themselves from social and other politically sensitive movements;

– The local intelligentsia can now only discuss and study "politically incorrect" subjects in a stealthy manner; and

– Local Maoists have called for the "vindication" of the 1967 riots and even the Cultural Revolution.

With these seismic changes quietly underway, who can we pin our hopes on, 50 years later, to fend off the ill winds from the north?

Never expect the SAR government, now Beijing’s puppet, to stand firm; it has given full display of its incompetence and cowardice throughout the Lee Bo saga.

Some locals may have also developed subtle recognition of the nationalist, patriotic sentiments whipped up by the party’s propaganda apparatus over the years, so much so that even some who fled China in the '60s and '70s may have made a U-turn and become Beijing supporters.

The media have been largely muzzled as well, not because we no longer have outspoken reporters but newspaper owners may now want to avoid annoying Beijing. Ming Pao’s recent axing of a revered editor has spoken volumes about the state of press freedom in Hong Kong.

The KMT has long been marginalized in the city, nor will the international community continue to keep a watchful eye while they seek economic incentives from Beijing – London’s nonchalance when Beijing voided the Joint Declaration is all that apparent.

Hong Kong’s economic irreplaceability is now almost irrelevant to Beijing as well.

Does it mean we do not stand a chance at all?

The only positive change over the decades is that Hong Kong now boasts a vibrant civil society not seen 50 years ago.

Localism is spreading like wildfire and its promotion of the city's unique values can never be underestimated.

With our solidarity, we shall remember history, refuse to be mere onlookers and resist Beijing’s economic baits and ideological remolding.

Our city can and will sail through the storm.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Local leftists protested outside the Government House in the 1967 riots. The then Governor Sir David Trench sought military assistance from the British troops to quell the unrest. Photo: Life Magazine
Members of the Police Tactical Squad stand ready for the rioters. Photo: Internet

Senior journalist with The Straits Times and political commentator