In 1967, Hong Kong’s Protesters Were Communist Sympathizers

In 1967, Hong Kong’s Protesters Were Communist Sympathizers

HONG KONG — As the protests in Hong Kong have gotten more violent, a bloodier summer of unrest, more than half a century ago, has loomed ever larger.

In 1967, a labor dispute at a plastic flower factory led to a series of protests and lethal riots in Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. By the time it was over, more than 50 people were dead.

No one has been killed this summer in clashes between demonstrators and police officers or brawls between civilians, like the ones that broke out on Sunday night in and around the city’s North Point neighborhood.

But Hong Kong officials are haunted by the possibility, and Sunday’s bare-knuckled brawls ended in a haze of flashing ambulance lights. At least 28 people were injured in clashes in North Point and other neighborhoods throughout the day, including a 49-year-old man who the local media said was beaten unconscious by a mob of protesters.

Longtime democracy advocates in Hong Kong warn that rising violence could turn the public against the protesters’ cause, which is precisely what happened in North Point in 1967.

But the differences between then and now may be more striking. One is that the demonstrators of 1967 were railing not against China, but against the British. And the Chinese Communist Party, which denounces the current unrest, was then quietly supporting it.

Here is a primer on the 1967 riots, and why they still reverberate in Hong Kong.

The trigger was a labor dispute that began in April 1967 at the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works, a factory owned by the local tycoon Li Ka-shing. Workers became angry over wage cuts and a ban on taking leave, and mass firings enraged them further, according to “Hong Kong’s Watershed: The 1967 Riots,” a 2009 book by the South China Morning Post reporter Gary Cheung.

The dispute turned violent in May, setting off months of large-scale unrest across the city, including deadly riots in North Point, a district that was an enclave for Communist sympathizers.

Those sympathizers were deeply influenced by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the decade of upheaval on the Chinese mainland that began in 1966 and had dramatic, often violent effects across the country. But the unrest in Hong Kong, which was then a British colony, also reflected years of frustration over local problems, including a lack of social mobility.

A protest in 1966 had hinted at those pressures, as more than 900 people, many of them teenage boys, were arrested for rioting over a fare increase on a cross-harbor ferry. A government commission later found that many of the boys worked at jobs that offered little security or advancement and “lacked opportunity for normal teenage fun.”

Hong Kong banned foreign political parties in 1949. But according to “A Modern History of Hong Kong,” a 2004 book by Steve Tsang, the 1967 unrest was clandestinely organized and directed by the Hong Kong and Macao Work Committee, the local branch of mainland China’s Communist Party.

By the spring of 1967, the Cultural Revolution was becoming volatile. According to Mr. Tsang, local Communist cells started a violent campaign in Hong Kong partly to show loyalty to Mao, but also to avoid becoming targets of a Maoist purge. To promote their cause, they called on local pro-Beijing newspapers to spread anti-British propaganda.

The British authorities determined that the violence was being driven locally, not by any conspiracy in Beijing to “force a solution over the future of Hong Kong,” wrote Mr. Tsang, who is now the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

But “no one could rule out such an eventuality if the confrontation were to escalate out of control,” he added.

Like the demonstrations this summer, the protest movement of 1967 had both peaceful and violent elements. Some people marched in large-scale protests or took part in general strikes organized by Communist-run unions; others threw stones outside government offices, set cars on fire or even detonated bombs in the street.

Josephine So, a retired accountant who has lived in North Point since emigrating from eastern China in the 1930s, said she was among the young protesters who marched to the British governor’s office in 1967, and that she kept her Communist sympathies a secret.

“Of course I supported the rebellion against the British colonial government and colonialism itself,” said Ms. So, who at the time worked for a mainland Chinese company. “I was very idealistic and passionate, and I believed wholeheartedly in Communist propaganda.”

Fifty-one people were killed in the riots, including 10 police officers, according to an official history of the Hong Kong police. More than 800 people were injured.

A key turning point came on Aug. 20, when two children were killed in North Point by a bomb that rioters had apparently planted on the street. Connie Lo, a filmmaker who directed a recent documentary about the riots, said that turned much of the Hong Kong public against the rioters’ anticolonial cause.

As the protests dragged on, the colonial riot police — described by Mr. Tsang as “organized, equipped, well-trained and efficient” — controlled crowds with baton charges, the “very occasional” use of firearms and the “fairly widespread” use of tear gas.

The British authorities eventually defused the crisis, in part by introducing substantial political reforms. One was the expansion of a system for public feedback on the colonial government’s policies, which had previously been introduced on a limited scale.

Denis Bray, a former colonial official in Hong Kong, later wrote in a memoir that while the riots were largely an “overflow” of the Cultural Revolution, they also highlighted “a serious lack of communication between the government and ordinary people in town.”

The current unrest in Hong Kong was prompted by opposition to a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, and which Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said early this month that she would formally withdraw.

Mrs. Lam, a career civil servant, apparently did not foresee how much public fury that proposal would unleash.

One parallel between the Hong Kong governments of 1967 and today is that both were “hopelessly out of touch” with public sentiment before the civil disobedience began, said Jason Wordie, a local historian and newspaper columnist.

“But of course, a key difference then as opposed to now is that you had people who were in charge who were actually in charge, and who were prepared to take charge,” he added. A key question this summer has been how much authority Mrs. Lam has, and whether China — which has ruled Hong Kong as a semiautonomous territory since Britain handed it back in 1997 — is making the real decisions.

As a hard-core group of today’s protesters resorts to violent tactics — throwing bricks and gasoline bombs at police officers, for example — some supporters fear that they risk losing popular support for their cause, as the 1967 demonstrators did.

Ms. So, now 91, said in an interview last month that while she generally supports today’s protesters, she considers the use of violence against police officers to be a strategic mistake.

“Who made the police so heartless and forced them to use tear gas and pepper spray?” she said from a wheelchair in her North Point apartment. “Who pushed them to this? This has nothing to do with the police. Two words: Carrie Lam.”

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