Section 1: Identification and Evaluation of Sources The 1967 Leftist Riots was a territory wide riot between pro-communists and thecolonial government that occurred from May to December of 1967 in British Hong Kong.While the event was instigated by a minor labour dispute, a debate exists over theunderlying causes of the riots between Marxist historians who recognize socioeconomicconditions, such as poor labour welfare and economic disparity, as the root cause andorthodox historians who acknowledge the Cultural Revolution in mainland China as theprimary impetus that led to the riots. To investigate the question “What was the significance of the Cultural Revolution as animpetus to the 1967 riots in Hong Kong?”, a range of primary and secondary sourceswere consulted. These include ‘Hong Kong’s Watershed’, selected for its insights intospecific leftist organisations that helped perpetrate the riot, and ‘Colony in Conflict,’selected for its first-hand account of the event from a British perspective, along with theHong Kong Annual Report of 1966-67, chosen for its quantitative socio-economic data. Critical to this investigation are two sources.
The first source is ‘A Historical Perspective:The 1967 riots and the strike boycott of 1925-1926’, written by John Carroll. This isvaluable to my investigation as John Carroll is an esteemed local historian who has anextensive understanding of local history, having published multiple academic texts onHong Kong history and has been teaching it at the University of Hong Kong. This Candidate Number: 000637-0087 source’s origin is thus valuable to my investigation as his familiarity and experience withthe subject can ensure a nuanced, knowledgeable and critical depiction of the event.The purpose of the source is to examine and compare the factors that led to the riots of1967 and the 1925-26 strike boycott.
This is a limitation as its scope is set on thecauses of both events and does not focus solely on the 1967 riots, the focal point of theinvestigation. The content of the source is valuable as it examines both orthodox andmarxist perspectives, judging local communist organisations which reacted to politicaldevelopments in mainland China and poor socio-economic conditions among the localChinese as causes to the riot, providing a synthesis from contrary viewpoints. The second source is ‘???????’ ? or ‘History of Leftist Struggle in Hong Kong’,written by Zhou Yi. This is a limitation as the author is not a professional historian butinstead, a reporter.
The source approaches the event from a mainly narrative viewpointand lacks critical analysis. Furthermore, as a former union member, he was physicallyattacked by the colonial police during the protest, which may lead to personal bias andan imbalanced, anti-British viewpoint. The purpose of this source is to analyse amultitude of leftist unrests throughout the 20th century in Hong Kong from a marxistpoint of view. This is valuable as it provides an alternate perspective on the 1967 riots,blaming the British colonial authority and its policies as the main impetus of the riots.The content of the source is valuable as it includes first hand statistics from the periodbefore and during the riot, such as food and commodity prices and labour wages,obtained from local newspaper databases, which will allow me to tangibly evaluate Candidate Number: 000637-0087 socio-economic conditions in the investigation.
However, the content is also a limitation,as the source generally disregards the Cultural Revolution in its evaluation of thecauses to the riot and scantily mentions it. Section 2: Investigation This investigation will examine the importance of the Great Proletarian CulturalRevolution as a cause to the 1967 riots against socioeconomic causes and determinewhether the it was the primary impulsion of the event. It will be argued that whileunderlying socioeconomic conditions that predate the Cultural Revolution, such as poorlabour conditions and widespread economic disparity set the scene for the outbreak ofthe riots, the Cultural Revolution nevertheless acted as a decisive external impetus. On one side of the debate surrounding the reasons for the 1967 riots are historians whoargue that the Cultural Revolution was not the most significant cause of the 1967 riotsbecause general economic disparity already exacerbated widespread public dissent.Historians such as Zhou Yi cite the spike in immigration during and after the Great LeapForward, in which the Hong Kong population increased by 1 million in 7 years from 1960as one of many socio-economic conditions that “set the stage for further demonstrationsof discontent towards the colonial government”.
(Zhou 193) He states that “the vastmajority of the proletariat was living below the poverty line…..causing the antagonismsbetween the colonial ruler and the subjects to become increasingly acute.
” Zhou’s Candidate Number: 000637-0087 argument may seem imprecise due to its focus on narration and the lack of detailed,comprehensive economic data, though it can be further supported with data fromgovernment reports. For example, not only did great disparities exist in workers’ income,with daily wages in 1967 ranging from 5.4HKD to 30HKD among both unskilled andskilled workers, over 50000 were unemployed in 1967, a figure that is, according to thegovernment report of the year, “unexpectedly high” (1967,Hong Kong Government 27).Furthermore, poor housing conditions and overcrowding were widespread. By 1964,there are over 500000 living in temporary settlements, consisting of hillside shacks androoftop huts, while the figure still stood at 405000 by the end of 1967 (1967,Hong KongGovernment 132). As John Cooper stated, “San Po Kong had all the natural advantagesfor civil unrest: dated buildings with limited space…
. hundreds of citizens living inhuman rabbit warrens” (Cooper 10) According to Zhou Yi the average living space foran adult was a mere 25 square ft. (Zhou 227) This resulted in a buildup of widespreaddiscontent that erupted in the spring of 1966 when a large scale protest, leading to over1800 arrested, was sparked over a fare increase in the Star Ferry, a crucial and widelyused ferry line. As admitted by the government enquiry commision, “the underlyinginsecurities in life, the struggle to maintain a living in 1966, created tensions whichwould be more than sufficient to cause riots.” (Carroll 75) In short, outbreaks of publicdissent caused by local conditions predated the Cultural Revolution and the riots of1967.
Candidate Number: 000637-0087 Other historians have suggested that the Cultural Revolution was not the mostsignificant cause of the 1967 riots because labour disputes stemming from poor workingconditions provided for both a pretext to outbreak of public dissent and a direct cause tothe riots. Seminal in this regard has been the work of Gary Cheung, who examined thegeneral lack of improvement of labour legislation and industrial safety. “workers enjoyedscant protection”, stated historian Cheung, who argued that “long standing socialproblems and discontent with the colonial administration” preceded the disturbances of1967. (Cheung 13) This is supported by quantitative data in the Hong Kong annualreport of 1966-67.
For example, from 1966-67, no legal restrictions on hours of work formen were in place, while child labourers, ageing from 14-18 were allowed to beemployed. (1967,Hong Kong Government 28) Moreover, the report of 1967 recognizesa “need for first aid facilities”, as pre-existing medical services for workers only covered13% of the workforce, or 45000 workers. (1967,Hong Kong Government 33)Furthermore, the industrial accident statistics of 1966 accounted for 165 deaths, ofwhich only 35 occurred in registrable workplaces, out of a total of 9693 reportedincidents. (1966,Hong Kong Government 288) According to Marxist writer Zhou Yi, thelabour conditions, which were “identical to that of the 50s, increased economic tensionsand antagonisms between the colonial authority and the local populace”. (Zhou 193)Poor labour relations, however, also acted as the immediate trigger to the 1967 riots.(Cheung 23) Actions taken by the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works during a wagedispute in May led to the escalation of tensions and the outbreak of riots.
New wageconditions imposed by the factory, which pushed for higher output and lower bonuses Candidate Number: 000637-0087 led not to conciliation, but instead, the immediate sacking of 658 workers (includingrepresentatives). (Zhou 228) This led to a persistent campaign of protests andsubsequently, a worker-led blockade of the factory plant. As mediation failed,riot-policemen soon arrived and violently beat and arrested dozens of workers, quicklypoliticizing the event which would erupt, subsequently, into the territory-wide riots. (Zhou229) While pre-existing labour tensions provided an overbearing socio-economicbackdrop of labour dissention, it also served as a direct cause to the riots. A third historiographical trend in the literature on the 1967 riots suggests that theCultural Revolution was the most significant cause of the 1967 riots because it directlyincited anti-government and pro-leftist sentiments that were amplified during the riots.Historian Carroll argues that the 1967 riots “could not have occurred without extensivesupport from within China” and stated in a personal interview that “the CulturalRevolution is undoubtedly the main cause of the 1967 riots.” (Carroll 70) The scope ofCarroll’s perspective may be limited by its negligence of particular events leading-up tothe 1967 riots, which are explored in detail by historians Bickers and Cheung, asillustrated below. In December of 1966, the Macau riots, inspired by the CulturalRevolution and instigated by a public works incident, broke out.
Protesters, manyutilising Maoist rhetoric and quoting from the “Little Red Book”, confronted thePortuguese authorities. (Bickers 56) The incident in Macau had a “spillover” effect onHong Kong in that it immediately heightened tensions in the labour population, causinga succession of politically charged labour disputes that subsequently led to the 1967 Candidate Number: 000637-0087 riots. (Cheung 16) For example, in February of 1967, a series of violent disputes in afabric factory developed into anti-government, Maoist inspired demonstrations, in whichthe “little red book” and portraits of Mao were equipped by union representatives. Asstated by historian Cheung, “the riots in Macau provided a spiritual boost to the left wingcamp in Hong Kong” (Cheung 16).
Subsequently, an extensive network of pro-Beijingworkers organisations, most prominently the communist aligned Hong Kong Federationof Trade Unions (a.k.a. FTU), escalated the labour disputes at the Hong Kong ArtificialFlower Works into anti-colonial riots by declaring support for the disputing labourers. On May 8th, 1967, the FTU officially urged workers to condemn the “colonial atrocities”.(Cheung 30) Inspired by the call to action, picketing workers assembled outside thefactory and began demonstrating with the “Little Red Book” and “Big Character Posters”while chanting “revolutionary slogans” three days later on the 11th. (Carroll 76) On May12th, the FTU established the “All-Industries Workers Anti-Prescution StruggleCommittee, calling upon all leftist unions to join the campaign against the colonial polity.
(Cheung 30-32) Furthermore, through local organisations affiliated with Beijing, theCultural Revolution acted as a propagandic catalyst that helped incite the large scaleriot in 1967. The Cultural Revolution and leftist success in Macau directly influenced theXinHua News Agency to “initiate a big struggle”, as quoted from Liang Wei-lin, formerchairman of Xinhua. (Cheung 17) Directing over 10 left wing newspapers, the XInhuaNews Agency controlled a “powerful propaganda machine” that is able to reach anaudience of 350000 (25% of HK’s Chinese population) to orchestrate its propagandacampaign and incited discontent during the riots. (Carroll 72) Lastly, while the 1967 riots Candidate Number: 000637-0087 was embraced extensively by local leftist forces, the Star Ferry riots, another large scalecivil conflict involving over 1800 arrested in the spring of 1966, failed to attract any leftistor pro-communist intervention when the Cultural Revolution had not spread acrossChina. Historian Cheung argues that “The double standard the leftist organisationsapplied to the two events…
lent credence to the claim that the leftist camp onlysupported the 1967 riots under the impact of the Cultural Revolution.” (Cheung 27) TheCultural Revolution’s “spillover” into Hong Kong ultimately led to the eruption of the1967 riots. In conclusion, internal socio-economic factors, such as economic disparity andinadequate labour conditions amounted to evident public dissent and social tensionsthat served as the backdrop to the outbreak of the 1967 riots. However, while poorlabour relations did act as an immediate cause to the riots, the Cultural Revolution wasa more vital impetus as it directly incited pre-existing public sentiments and ultimatelyescalated a labour dispute into widespread, territory-wide riots. Candidate Number: 000637-0087 Section 3: Reflection The investigation highlighted to me two challenges faced by historians. First, personaland political biases and second is the issue of causation.
The Marxist stance of Zhou Yiin his book, A History of Leftist Struggle in Hong Kong, is often reflected in his use ofstrong, anti-colonial language that demonstrates a high degree of hatred towards thecolonial authority, referring to it as “imperialist” and “oppressive”. In conductingresearch, I found it challenging to disassociate his personal political bias from thearguments presented in the book. Another problem that I came across is the difficulty toestablish a definitive nexus between cause and effect. Throughout the investigation, Iwas unable to find strong evidence which proves that that poor socio-economicconditions among the local population had direct links to the outbreak of the riots, andcould only conclude that socio-economic problems created the context in which the riotsoccurred. The correlation between anti government, anti colonial sentiments displayedduring the riots and specific socio-economic conditions can only be assumed, even afterconsulting local historian John Carroll in person, who stated that it is “difficult toevidently prove poor housing conditions and poverty as directly related to the 1967riots”. (Carroll Personal Interview)This differs greatly from the natural sciences, in whichcause-effect relations are often tangible and quantifiable.