The British Empire Library

Hong Kong's Watershed: The 1967 Riots

by Gary Ka-wai Cheung

Courtesy of OSPA

Bernard Williams (Assistant Defence Secretary HK 1965-68)
This book is very welcome in filling a long-neglected gap in Hong Kong's recent history, dealing with the eruption of the Chinese Cultural Revolution into Hong Kong.

Gary Cheung's book was originally published in Chinese in 2000, but has now been translated by him and re-issued in 2009. It covers in detail all the events of the disturbances, and its strength is that he has used the now published Hong Kong Governor's telegrams to the Commonwealth Office, the reports of the charge d'affaires in Beijing, and ECO documents. These he has compared with accounts from the surviving members of the left-wing Struggle Committee, whom he has interviewed. Although the Chinese archives have not been made public, he quotes various memoirs giving the Beijing thinking. Erom our point of view, these sources show the classic Colonial Service situation of Governor Trench taking a strong line against the disturbances in spite of the reservations of officials in Whitehall.

After the humiliation of the Portuguese authorities in Macau in December 1966, the local Communist elements were determined to extend the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong. The opportunity occurred in May 1967 when an industrial dispute was escalated into a Macau-type confrontation with mass demonstrations, culminating on 22 May in the staged "Garden Road Bloodshed". After the Beijing protest that followed, the Labour Commonwealth Secretary Henry Bowden agreed most of the Governor's proposed emergency measures, but advised caution in their implementation.

In fact, although Trench emphasised that the riots were locally inspired, a view that was backed by the charge in Beijing Donald Hopson, Bowden set up a secret committee to advise on the possible evacuation of the Colony, a project that was fortunately never made public.

Continuing support from the radical left-wing elements in Beijing led in June to a strike by the Communist unions in the transport and public utility sectors. Although there was some inconvenience, and a temporary interruption in food supplies, this was largely unsuccessful, and food and water from China continued throughout the summer.

On 8 July however a militia machine gun opened fire in the border town of Sha Tau Kok, killing five policemen. The British Army took over border control. This incident emboldened the left wing elements, who assumed, wrongly, that the Peoples Liberation Army was about to invade. Instead, on 12 July the government reacted with a continuous series of raids on left-wing premises and the arrest of members of the Struggle Committee. Violence then became less organised, but by the end of July an indiscriminate bomb campaign started. When innocent civilians were killed, the general public, who had supported the government throughout, became even more anti-communist.

On 9 August, with Commonwealth Office approval, the government closed down three minor communist newspapers and arrested five of their publishers, who were Jailed for seditious libel. In retaliation, on 22 August, Beijing Red Guards burnt down the British legation in Beijing, and beat up the staff. This was too much for the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who had never supported the extension of the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong. He apologised to the British government, and ordered the Hong Kong leftists to calm things down. This led to secret local talks, and the practical end of the confrontation.

British Empire Book
Gary Ka-wai Cheung
Hong Kong University Press
978 962 209 089 7


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