Fifty years ago this weekend broke out what arguably remains the most violent and most traumatic incident in the city’s history since World War II. On May 6, 1967, a labor dispute at a factory producing plastic flowers in the district of Kowloon triggered an eight-month crisis that killed 51 people and injured 832, and momentarily brought the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong.
Both internal and external factors contributed to the crisis. The policies of the British colonial government had heightened disparities between the bourgeois and the working class, and the poor faced even greater poverty after an influx of refugees fleeing communist China. Meanwhile on the mainland, the Cultural Revolution, which had started the year before, was turning increasingly radical.
The May 6 riot was started by the local chapter of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.), which hoped to bring the colonial government to its knees. The year before, its counterpart had done just that with the Portuguese authorities in Macau, becoming the de facto ruler there.
But if the Portuguese had caved in readily, the British put up strong resistance. The C.C.P. in Hong Kong responded with brutal violence. The initial riot morphed into a prolonged campaign of urban terrorism.
More than 1,000 bombs were planted during the second half of 1967, killing 16 people. Left-wing students and workers with little training in how to handle explosives took to manufacturing bombs in schools and trade-union offices. It wasn’t until an 18-year-old student accidentally blew off his hand that the authorities realized science laboratories were being turned into makeshift arsenals. Indignation ran high when another bomb killed a young sister and brother who were playing on the street.
The local C.C.P. created more terror by issuing a list of people targeted for assassination. These included a senior Chinese official in the British administration, a top business leader, a representative of the landed class and Louis Cha Leung-yung, the publisher of Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper that had criticized the riot. Lam Bun, an outspoken radio broadcaster who had also condemned the disturbances, was burned to death, along with his cousin, on the way to work.
But this was the heyday of the Cultural Revolution, and to local communists, these terrorist acts were heroic and patriotic.
In China, summary executions and the arbitrary killing of opponents were the order of the day. Posters with slogans like “Long Live Red Terrorism!” were plastered all over the country. Red Guard organizations on the mainland, especially in large cities, expressed solidarity with the Hong Kong leftists. One million people protested in front of the office of the British chargé d’affaires in Beijing in June. Two months later the office was set on fire.
Sino-British relations came to a standstill. According to a highly reputable source who spoke on the condition of anonymity, it appears that Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, asked Mao Zedong if he intended to claim Hong Kong back from Britain. Mao said that it wasn’t time and that he would honor the treaties China had signed allowing Britain to rule Hong Kong until 1997. Zhou then ordered an immediate halt to the riot in Hong Kong.
Mao died in 1976, and in 1981 the C.C.P. adopted the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” categorically denouncing the Cultural Revolution. The 1967 Hong Kong riot, being an extension of that, was also being disavowed.
Li Hou, a former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a ministry-level body that handled the two colonies, wrote in his 1997 memoir that the 1967 riot was the worst mistake the C.C.P. had made in Hong Kong since coming to power in 1949. “Although the masses are heroic,” he wrote, “the line is wrong.”
But no sooner had Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 that local communists started rewriting history. In 2001, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s leader at the time, awarded the territory’s highest order of honor, the Grand Bauhinia Medal, to the symbolic leader of the 1967 riot.
Since then, this terrorist chapter in Hong Kong’s history book has been whitewashed. In 2010, two legislators from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, a pro-communist party, openly claimed that Chinese communists had nothing to do with the assassination of Lam Bun — never mind the fact that numerous communist newspapers at the time had hailed his “execution.” In 2015, the Hong Kong police, in the name of depoliticizing the force, deleted key facts from its account of the 1967 riot on its website, downplaying the communist militias’ involvement in the violence.
In recent years, academics and lawyers in mainland China have denounced a phenomenon they call a “subcultural revolution”: a climate of fear that resembles, even if it hardly matches, the repression of a half-century ago. They attribute it to the government of President Xi Jinping and its efforts to centralize power and encourage a personality cult around Mr. Xi while silencing dissenting voices within the C.C.P.
When the Cultural Revolution threatened to engulf Hong Kong 50 years ago, the British were in power and they held fast. Today the city’s leader, who was installed recently with Beijing’s assent, is the hard-line Carrie Lam-Cheng Yuet-Ngor. Who here would fend off the “subcultural revolution” if it were to spread toward Hong Kong?
Ching Cheong is a journalist based in Hong Kong.
This is an essay in the series Red Century, about the history and legacy of communism 100 years after the Russian Revolution.