Section 1: Identification and Evaluation of Sources

The 1967 Leftist Riots was a territory wide riot between pro-communists and the
colonial 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 the
underlying causes of the riots between Marxist historians who recognize socioeconomic
conditions, such as poor labour welfare and economic disparity, as the root cause and
orthodox historians who acknowledge the Cultural Revolution in mainland China as the
primary impetus that led to the riots.

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To investigate the question “What was the significance of the Cultural Revolution as an
impetus to the 1967 riots in Hong Kong?”, a range of primary and secondary sources
were consulted. These include ‘Hong Kong’s Watershed’, selected for its insights into
specific 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 the
Hong 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 is
valuable to my investigation as John Carroll is an esteemed local historian who has an
extensive understanding of local history, having published multiple academic texts on
Hong Kong history and has been teaching it at the University of Hong Kong. This

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source’s origin is thus valuable to my investigation as his familiarity and experience with
the 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 of
1967 and the 1925-26 strike boycott. This is a limitation as its scope is set on the
causes of both events and does not focus solely on the 1967 riots, the focal point of the
investigation. The content of the source is valuable as it examines both orthodox and
marxist perspectives, judging local communist organisations which reacted to political
developments in mainland China and poor socio-economic conditions among the local
Chinese 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 but
instead, a reporter. The source approaches the event from a mainly narrative viewpoint
and lacks critical analysis. Furthermore, as a former union member, he was physically
attacked by the colonial police during the protest, which may lead to personal bias and
an imbalanced, anti-British viewpoint. The purpose of this source is to analyse a
multitude of leftist unrests throughout the 20th century in Hong Kong from a marxist
point 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 period
before 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

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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 the
causes to the riot and scantily mentions it.

Section 2: Investigation

This investigation will examine the importance of the Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution as a cause to the 1967 riots against socioeconomic causes and determine
whether the it was the primary impulsion of the event. It will be argued that while
underlying socioeconomic conditions that predate the Cultural Revolution, such as poor
labour conditions and widespread economic disparity set the scene for the outbreak of
the 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 who
argue that the Cultural Revolution was not the most significant cause of the 1967 riots
because general economic disparity already exacerbated widespread public dissent.
Historians such as Zhou Yi cite the spike in immigration during and after the Great Leap
Forward, in which the Hong Kong population increased by 1 million in 7 years from 1960
as one of many socio-economic conditions that “set the stage for further demonstrations
of discontent towards the colonial government”. (Zhou 193) He states that “the vast
majority of the proletariat was living below the poverty line…..causing the antagonisms
between the colonial ruler and the subjects to become increasingly acute.” Zhou’s

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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 from
government 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 and
skilled workers, over 50000 were unemployed in 1967, a figure that is, according to the
government 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 and
rooftop huts, while the figure still stood at 405000 by the end of 1967 (1967,Hong Kong
Government 132). As John Cooper stated, “San Po Kong had all the natural advantages
for civil unrest: dated buildings with limited space…. hundreds of citizens living in
human rabbit warrens” (Cooper 10) According to Zhou Yi the average living space for
an adult was a mere 25 square ft. (Zhou 227) This resulted in a buildup of widespread
discontent that erupted in the spring of 1966 when a large scale protest, leading to over
1800 arrested, was sparked over a fare increase in the Star Ferry, a crucial and widely
used ferry line. As admitted by the government enquiry commision, “the underlying
insecurities in life, the struggle to maintain a living in 1966, created tensions which
would be more than sufficient to cause riots.” (Carroll 75) In short, outbreaks of public
dissent caused by local conditions predated the Cultural Revolution and the riots of

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Other historians have suggested that the Cultural Revolution was not the most
significant cause of the 1967 riots because labour disputes stemming from poor working
conditions provided for both a pretext to outbreak of public dissent and a direct cause to
the riots. Seminal in this regard has been the work of Gary Cheung, who examined the
general lack of improvement of labour legislation and industrial safety. “workers enjoyed
scant protection”, stated historian Cheung, who argued that “long standing social
problems and discontent with the colonial administration” preceded the disturbances of
1967. (Cheung 13) This is supported by quantitative data in the Hong Kong annual
report of 1966-67. For example, from 1966-67, no legal restrictions on hours of work for
men were in place, while child labourers, ageing from 14-18 were allowed to be
employed. (1967,Hong Kong Government 28) Moreover, the report of 1967 recognizes
a “need for first aid facilities”, as pre-existing medical services for workers only covered
13% of the workforce, or 45000 workers. (1967,Hong Kong Government 33)
Furthermore, the industrial accident statistics of 1966 accounted for 165 deaths, of
which only 35 occurred in registrable workplaces, out of a total of 9693 reported
incidents. (1966,Hong Kong Government 288) According to Marxist writer Zhou Yi, the
labour conditions, which were “identical to that of the 50s, increased economic tensions
and 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 wage
dispute in May led to the escalation of tensions and the outbreak of riots. New wage
conditions imposed by the factory, which pushed for higher output and lower bonuses

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led not to conciliation, but instead, the immediate sacking of 658 workers (including
representatives). (Zhou 228) This led to a persistent campaign of protests and
subsequently, a worker-led blockade of the factory plant. As mediation failed,
riot-policemen soon arrived and violently beat and arrested dozens of workers, quickly
politicizing the event which would erupt, subsequently, into the territory-wide riots. (Zhou
229) While pre-existing labour tensions provided an overbearing socio-economic
backdrop 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 the
Cultural Revolution was the most significant cause of the 1967 riots because it directly
incited anti-government and pro-leftist sentiments that were amplified during the riots.
Historian Carroll argues that the 1967 riots “could not have occurred without extensive
support from within China” and stated in a personal interview that “the Cultural
Revolution is undoubtedly the main cause of the 1967 riots.” (Carroll 70) The scope of
Carroll’s perspective may be limited by its negligence of particular events leading-up to
the 1967 riots, which are explored in detail by historians Bickers and Cheung, as
illustrated below. In December of 1966, the Macau riots, inspired by the Cultural
Revolution and instigated by a public works incident, broke out. Protesters, many
utilising Maoist rhetoric and quoting from the “Little Red Book”, confronted the
Portuguese authorities. (Bickers 56) The incident in Macau had a “spillover” effect on
Hong Kong in that it immediately heightened tensions in the labour population, causing
a succession of politically charged labour disputes that subsequently led to the 1967

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riots. (Cheung 16) For example, in February of 1967, a series of violent disputes in a
fabric factory developed into anti-government, Maoist inspired demonstrations, in which
the “little red book” and portraits of Mao were equipped by union representatives. As
stated by historian Cheung, “the riots in Macau provided a spiritual boost to the left wing
camp in Hong Kong” (Cheung 16). Subsequently, an extensive network of pro-Beijing
workers organisations, most prominently the communist aligned Hong Kong Federation
of Trade Unions (a.k.a. FTU), escalated the labour disputes at the Hong Kong Artificial
Flower 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 the
factory 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 May
12th, the FTU established the “All-Industries Workers Anti-Prescution Struggle
Committee, calling upon all leftist unions to join the campaign against the colonial polity.
(Cheung 30-32) Furthermore, through local organisations affiliated with Beijing, the
Cultural Revolution acted as a propagandic catalyst that helped incite the large scale
riot in 1967. The Cultural Revolution and leftist success in Macau directly influenced the
XinHua News Agency to “initiate a big struggle”, as quoted from Liang Wei-lin, former
chairman of Xinhua. (Cheung 17) Directing over 10 left wing newspapers, the XInhua
News Agency controlled a “powerful propaganda machine” that is able to reach an
audience of 350000 (25% of HK’s Chinese population) to orchestrate its propaganda
campaign and incited discontent during the riots. (Carroll 72) Lastly, while the 1967 riots

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was embraced extensively by local leftist forces, the Star Ferry riots, another large scale
civil conflict involving over 1800 arrested in the spring of 1966, failed to attract any leftist
or pro-communist intervention when the Cultural Revolution had not spread across
China. Historian Cheung argues that “The double standard the leftist organisations
applied to the two events…lent credence to the claim that the leftist camp only
supported the 1967 riots under the impact of the Cultural Revolution.” (Cheung 27) The
Cultural Revolution’s “spillover” into Hong Kong ultimately led to the eruption of the
1967 riots.

In conclusion, internal socio-economic factors, such as economic disparity and
inadequate labour conditions amounted to evident public dissent and social tensions
that served as the backdrop to the outbreak of the 1967 riots. However, while poor
labour relations did act as an immediate cause to the riots, the Cultural Revolution was
a more vital impetus as it directly incited pre-existing public sentiments and ultimately
escalated a labour dispute into widespread, territory-wide riots.

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Section 3: Reflection

The investigation highlighted to me two challenges faced by historians. First, personal
and political biases and second is the issue of causation. The Marxist stance of Zhou Yi
in his book, A History of Leftist Struggle in Hong Kong, is often reflected in his use of
strong, anti-colonial language that demonstrates a high degree of hatred towards the
colonial authority, referring to it as “imperialist” and “oppressive”. In conducting
research, I found it challenging to disassociate his personal political bias from the
arguments presented in the book. Another problem that I came across is the difficulty to
establish a definitive nexus between cause and effect. Throughout the investigation, I
was unable to find strong evidence which proves that that poor socio-economic
conditions among the local population had direct links to the outbreak of the riots, and
could only conclude that socio-economic problems created the context in which the riots
occurred. The correlation between anti government, anti colonial sentiments displayed
during the riots and specific socio-economic conditions can only be assumed, even after
consulting local historian John Carroll in person, who stated that it is “difficult to
evidently prove poor housing conditions and poverty as directly related to the 1967
riots”. (Carroll Personal Interview)This differs greatly from the natural sciences, in which
cause-effect relations are often tangible and quantifiable. 

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