Book review: Rise and Smothering of Radical Labour in Hong Kong, 1938-58

I actually enjoyed the book a lot! Gives me some real interest in colonial history of South-east Asian states that worked towards decolonisation, as well as 1960-90 labour politics of HK. What seemed distant once played out on Russell Street (outside Time Square), Hennessey Road and Canal Road East, just some 50-70 years ago. It’s there, laying silently, for us to rediscover.

*****

Loss Decades of Militant Unionism in Hong Kong: Perspectives from Workers, Parties and Colonial Government

Lu, Y. (2019). Crossed Paths: Labor Activism and Colonial Governance in Hong Kong, 1938-1958. Cornell University East Asia Program.

Interweaving the perspectives of the British colonial government, Chinese political parties (Chinese Communist Party, CCP and Guomindang, GMD) and the working Chinese, Lu provided a well-grounded chronicle of Hong Kong labour politics in the turbulent years of 1938-1958.

Narrative

The time period was chosen carefully to mark the ‘crossed paths’ treaded by those on top and at the bottom of the political hierarchy in Hong Kong. There was a short period of time when the two paths went hand-in-hand, and the establishment of a British-style industrial relations in Hong Kong, with strong unionised labour through reformist intervention by the government, seemed possible.

In the late 1930s, London was pressurised into creating more balanced industrial relations in British colonies, in view of labourers’ dire working conditions. Such reform involved empowering trade unions in Hong Kong, which however was prevented becoming the law through resistance by a reluctant local administration and legislature. Immediately after the Japanese invasion, the colonial government required labour cooperation to rebuild business and counter-balance GMD (then heading the National government) influence. Thus the government adopted a lenient and even supportive stance towards left-wing trade unionism.

Meanwhile, Chinese ground-up mass organisation had evolved from the anti-Imperialist National Salvation Movement in the 1930s, to active anti-Japanese guerrilla resistance during the occupation and then colony-wide, democratic and self-initiated trade union movement in 1946-50. As Lu demonstrated, union leadership shifted from employer-friendly, GMD-led organisations into a network of seasoned underground Communist activists. They won popular support by their demonstrated dedication to the cause of ‘improving employment conditions’ (then a frequently invoked slogan) through militant unionism.

However, in Lu’s narrative, the years 1948-50 marked the divergence of the two paths, gearing them towards a head-on conflict. As the political situation in China sharply turned against the GMD since 1948, London and Hong Kong eventually agreed that rising loyalty towards a communist, unified China could jeopardise stability of the empire in South-east Asia, and affect entrenched British interests in the city. Deploying Cold-war rhetoric and branding all unions as purely ‘political’, the colonial government began to revise a series of repressive legislations in 1949, expanding the Emergency Regulation Ordinance and limiting working Chinese’s freedom to strike, freedom of association and right of abode.

In the meantime, grassroot militant unionism reached new heights. ‘During the years between the spring of 1946 and early 1950, rarely a month passed without collective labour action in the colony’ (p. 152). Industries like mechanics, dockyard workers, female knitters and taxi drivers demanded pay rise, more reasonable working hours and conditions under inflating living costs. Labour action often involved popular mobilisation from National Salvation movement traditions, such as ‘one-dollar donation campaign’ originating from street hawkers and high-profile celebrity support. To consolidate power, the Hong Kong Federation of Unions was formed in Mar 1948, combining 25 best organised and CCP-leaning unions. In response, GMD-led Trade Union Council was formed by combining craft unions in Sep 1948.

The Russell Street Bloodshed of 1950 – the incident when the police forcefully broke down a congregation of pro-China Tramway Union strikers and sympathisers on 31 January, 1950 – marked the inevitable collision of the two paths. Waves of detention and deportation, as well as trial against pro-China newspapers followed. As Beijing, mindful of retaining British support for the regime, gave a non-confrontational order, left-wing unions voluntarily retreated into the role of welfare provisioner for workers, marking the end of an era of militant unionism.

Contribution

In weaving this narrative, Lu refuted two major misinterpretation of the failure of Hong Kong working Chinese unionism: impediments to solidarity from traditional ties like dialect and kinship groups, or pure puppeteering of unions for ideological purposes by the CCP or GMD. She rightfully highlighted the exceptional agency and solidarity of the working Chinese, even at points of crises from Japanese occupation, shown by her chapter-long description of how the East River Guerrilla gained the trust of rural villagers in Hong Kong and western politicians. The arguments that unions were formed out of a humanistic spirit for a dignified life, and that labourers’ allegiance to the CCP was an outcome of the party’s efficient response to immediate needs of workers in wartime and the workplace, were well-supported by her portrayals of the roles played by many dedicated, on-the-ground organisers from the 1930s to 50s.  

To identify the cause of the failure of Hong Kong unionism, Lu instead focused rightfuly on critical decisions made by the colonial government at different points in time, and singled out their initial relaxation and subsequent repression over collective labour action as a major factor in the story. The argument was made while carefully avoiding overgeneralisation – Lu took pains to reconstruct debates at the time, by marking important voices of dissent in British ruling class circles on issues like reoccupying Hong Kong and attitude towards unions. Lu also provided sufficient details of decision-makers’ background that explained their worldviews and decisions, such as governor Grantham’s experience with labour stifle in other colonies that marked his deep distrust of labour. In accouting for the eventual political outcome, the balance between the role of grand geopolitics, organisational calculation and individual decision-making was well struck.

Yet, the important question that remained was what happened next to the legacy of labour activism in the 1930-50s. Lu provided a generally positive portrayal of militant unionism, led by communist leaders that eventually joined the FTU. Their voluntary retreat from militant politics since 1950 was attributed to external causes of colonial repression and PRC’s order to restraint. To what extent were the activists’ compliance responsible for stifling labour politics? When and how did the FTU turn from a genuine representative of labour interests to a partisan apparatus obedient to the PRC’s political orders?

Perhaps the question went beyond Lu’s scope of focus, but the answer would greatly assist us in recovering the full picture to Hong Kong’s lost tradition of labour radicalism. Regardless, Lu’s chronicle of Hong Kong’s decades of militant unionism – from the perspective of workers, party organisation and colonial government – provides invaluable insight in rediscovering the under-estimated potential of labour politics in the city.

Author: Veronique

To be tenacious, patient and independent.

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