HC Deb 08 November 1956 vol 560 cc410-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

10.14 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

I desire to draw the attention of the House to conditions in Hong Kong. During the late autumn I had the opportunity of spending some time there and found it far too short. Nevertheless. I saw a great deal and heard a great deal more. One could not but succumb to the beauty of the mainland and the islands, which yet failed to veil the abounding misery and poverty. There was one consolation; that beauty is not a monopoly, like so many necessities in the Colony. Hong Kong has everything. A lovely situation and squalid, overcrowded homes; riches and poverty that perpetuate a mocking disharmony; monopoly wherever one goes; virtue and vice that rub shoulders at every corner; good-hearted men and women seeking to abolish these evils, others thriving on them. On that unstable infrastructure the October riots developed.

It is necessary to draw a clear distinction between the rioting which occurred in the industrial area of Tsun Wan and the rioting in Kowloon itself. In the former place it was almost entirely political. Hong Kong suffers badly from the fact that its local trade unions are dominated by alien influence. On the one hand, we have officials appointed directly or indirectly from Formosa; on the other hand, officials similarly appointed from Peking. Both sides are fairly strong in Tsun Wan, and, taking their cue from the earlier disturbance in Kowloon, they had a serious battle. It is generally believed that many more deaths occurred than have been admitted by the Government. Among those who were killed were young factory girls.

There are, however, two points to be noted arising from the Tsun Wan riots. The Labour Department of the Hong Kong Administration is completely ineffective. As an example of this, I am told that since the riots a certain factory has issued an ultimatum to its workers informing them that they must accept a twelve-hour day at existing wages or be dismissed. This is an increase of four hours on the present working day. Is not that laying the ground-work of industrial discontent and strife in the future? The Labour Department is powerless to deal with the matter. I should like to explain why.

In 1948, the Labour Government appointed Mr. Ken Baker to organise the trade unions in Hong Kong. The intention was to pursue the pattern which had been adopted in this country so that they would concern themselves chiefly with conditions in industry. But the Hong Kong Government did not like the appointment, and when the Tory Party returned to power in this country, Mr. Baker was robbed of his status and functions and became an ordinary official of the Labour Office. This action was approved by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The chance to build up the unions after our pattern was lost and the road made clear for the political unions which went to war in Tsun Wan three weeks ago.

For that happening this Government must certainly be held responsible. If they had any doubts about Mr. Baker's capacity for his very onerous job, they should have appointed someone else. They did not do so. Clearly it was the appointment which was disliked. Now in Hong Kong we are paying the penalty for the bad advice which was tendered by the Governor and accepted by the Tory Government.

The riots in Kowloon generally are in a different category from those in the area of Tsun Wan. On 24lh October I asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he was not aware that "poverty, low wages and evil housing conditions were the root causes of the trouble now taking place there." The Minister replied, "No, Sir." He went on to point out that the trouble arose among those who had actually been resettled, not among those who were awaiting resettlement. I can say that when that reply was published in the Press in Hong Kong it created amazement—I heard to that effect on Tuesday this week.

Surely, the act of resettlement, in itself, does little to alleviate the impact of social and economic factors. Indeed, it may actually aggravate them. If resettled persons who were formerly living rent-free in squatters' shacks on Crown land, as most of these people were, are required to pay 14 Hong Kong dollars—which in our money is 17s. 6d.—per month per room in a resettlement block, nobody would expect them to be perfectly contented.

In addition, tenants are continually irritated by having their rent refused if it is not exactly 14 dollars per room, because no change is given, and the exact amount must be tendered. I suggest that this practice is quite intolerable and should be stopped immediately.

Resettlement, necessary as it, does not cure unemployment, which is rife in Hong Kong. As a matter of fact, the Government of Hong Kong have no machinery for assessing how much unemployment there is. No attempt has been made to find out, but everyone admits that it is widespread. Nor does resettlement increase wage rates; or improve industrial conditions. Grievances about these matters were the big contributing factors to the disturbances that have recently agitated the island and the mainland.

The immediate cause, however, of the Kowloon riots was an incident in the resettlement area of Li Cheng-Uk. Paper flags and other decorations were stuck on the walls of buildings. A resettlement supervisor ordered them to be taken down. The people resented this. They asked senior officers, who had arrived on the scene, for permission to set off fire crackers to obliterate what they regarded as an insult from the resettlement officer. That, I believe, is an old Chinese custom.

Permission was granted, and police actually assisted in getting the fire crackers. Unexpectedly, however, as often happens with a crowd, they turned ugly. The resettlement office was sacked and looted. Europeans were assaulted. So, too, were Chinese. We must remember that the many varied feelings that existed in the crowd could easily be played upon, for in Hong Kong there are people who are anti-European, there are those who are anti-Red, or pro-Red, and those who are anti-police. There are people who are anti-rich.

All those emotions could be compounded, for the time being at least, into a common purpose which would express itself in the most violent terms, because the instruments of that purpose have nothing to lose. They have no significance in the constitutional set-up. The Government of Hong Kong is authoritarian. It is composed entirely of officials and appointed members who are either yes-men or big business representatives. The Governor's advisers on Chinese affairs have not the confidence or the respect of the Chinese community.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. John Maclay) indicated dissent.

Mr. Rankin

The Minister of State shakes his head, but I spent a great deal of my time in the company of Chinese who were persons of standing in the Colony, and the view that they expressed to me was that the Chinese advisers of the Government had not the respect or the confidence of their community.

I hope that I am not revealing anything that I ought not to say, but one evening I sat between one of the advisers of the Governor and the Deputy-Governor and heard the most inaccurate description of what was happening in Peking, which I and the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) know to be completely inaccurate. The Deputy-Governor was informed, in proof of the destruction which was being caused in Peking by the Republican Government, that the city wall was being destroyed. Every member of the group who visited Peking knows that all that was happening was that the wall was being taken down at those places where it was interfering with necessary road development.

The view that I have expressed about these Chinese advisers is no secret in Hong Kong. I do not advance constitutional reform as being the cure-all for the difficulties and dangers that crowd upon Hong Kong, but an elected element in the Executive and the Legislature would at least help to focus grievances on a specific locus and compel the Government to consider measures which must be taken if peace and tranquillity are to be preserved in the Colony.

The part played by the Triad societies during the riots is to be noted. These societies are numerous and powerful. I heard a great deal about them during my visit. Their influence, however, resides basically on the gross inequalities inherent in the social structure of the Colony. Why does the Hong Kong Administration do nothing about them? Are these organisations maintained purposely as listening posts among the criminal strata of the population? Are some of the members paid informers and deliberately left there for that purpose?

In my view, it is imperative that a representative Board of Inquiry should be appointed by the Government to inquire into the cause of the riots in Kowloon and to suggest means for preventing their recurrence. This is too serious a matter to leave to a departmental officer. The social, political and economic structure of Hong Kong Colony is now under challenge, and events there are being closely followed across the border. The Chinese disposition at the moment is friendly, as was made clear at a meeting which we had with the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs. Should we fail in the execution of our trust, it may not remain so. I warn the Minister tonight that if we intend to remain in Hong Kong Colony, we must justify our position there. So far, we have not done so.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I very much regret that in the shortness of this debate one cannot deal adequately with conditions in Hong Kong, which were seen both by the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Rankin) and myself. I passed through shortly after him and I expected to hear entirely an eye-witness account tonight; but we were both out of the Colony long before the riots took place.

People often see the same thing but go away with different impressions, and I must say that I did not take such a gloomy view of Hong Kong as did the hon. Member, possibly because the Chinese contacts that I had were different from his. All I would say in these few minutes is that Hong Kong is no new problem. I do not think it can be equated with conditions anywhere else in the world. It has an unknown population to the tune of something like 500,000, with 75,000 additional births every year and an unknown flood of refugees from the mainland coming in. Consequently, without any documentation it is extraordinarily difficult to evolve the kind of settled housing policy which we have in this country. None the less, in my judgment the resettlement has been a really remarkable achievement, of which I have photographic evidence as well as a good many statistics.

The Government of Hong Kong and the people there, both Chinese and British, have produced a transformation since the war. I first was there 21 years ago, when it was a large port with a vast trade. This summer I came back from the mainland of China and it was an astonishing contrast to the rigid uniformity and orthodoxy of the mainland to come down and see the varied profusion of life in Hong Kong and to see that, with the trade limited, none the less this vast population had gathered under conditions of admittedly great difficulty and had built up new industries. In my judgment the textile mill I saw was first-class and the conditions very good. It was typical of the modern factories which are providing fierce, but fair, competition to some of our own industries.

I would merely ask my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary to provide such help as Hong Kong may need. Hong Kong is providing a great deal of self-help. I do not believe that the majority of people want political independence or sovereignty. That, I think, would be potential suicide They have economic independence, and that is what, I believe, they really want. It is, however, a most challenging result in very difficult circumstances and I must say that I was very favourably impressed.

10.33 p.m.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. John Maclay)

The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Rankin) started his speech with an interesting appreciation of what he found in Hong Kong, and I hoped that he would continue along the lines on which he started. I confess that his knowledge of Hong Kong in detail is inevitably rather more than mine on this first occasion when I have answered at the Box as Minister of State for Colonial Affairs.

As the hon. Member's speech went on, however, I became truly distressed, because from even the short time that I have been in my present office I can say categorically to the hon. Member that tomorrow, I believe, he will regret some of the remarks he made in the later part of his speech. He cast grave reflections on the Government of Hong Kong and he used phrases such as "yes-men," but I am sure he would be one of those who would agree that the Governor and the Government of Hong Kong have, in quite exceptionally difficult conditions, done a quite superb job.

The hon. Member went on to deal with the question of certain constitutional reforms. I would try to give the hon. Member, with all humility, because he has been there and I have not, some facts which he must bear in mind. He made those reflections on the Government of Hong Kong as at present constituted. Will he remember that what has to be dealt with is quite astonishing? I will give the figures for population alone. They are estimated figures after 1931, when the last census took place. In 1931 the population was 849,000; in 1945 it was estimated at 600,000; in 1956 at 2½ million. That is a fabulous increase in population, and it really reflects the greatest credit on the Government of Hong Kong and on Hong Kong itself that things are as good as they are.

Mr. Rankin

With both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E B. Hill) I agree that we have very little time for this debate, and I am loth to interrupt, but I did not deal with the population question because it raises many other questions. The Hong Kong Government at any moment they chose could have fixed the size of population at whatever limit they wanted, as they have now been forced to do.

Mr. Maclay

The hon. Member is making a very firm assumption there. I am not going to argue that with him now. He has given me many things with which to deal, I am glad the hon. Member has admitted that some very valuable work has been done.

Mr. Rankin

Oh, yes.

Mr. Maclay

I would refer him to a remark that he himself made some time ago. If he did not, it was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) who made it clear that for the way in which it had got on with housing its huge population Hong Kong deserved the greatest credit. I am glad to see the hon. Member nodding agreement with that. Perhaps he will be a little worried when he reads tomorrow morning some parts of his speech tonight.

To put the matter in perspective I am going to give figures of refugees. At present it is estimated that there are about 700,000 refugees in Hong Kong. They form about one-quarter of the population.

The hon. Member said that in housing, in low wages, in poverty was the real explanation of the rioting. No one would disagree that in such a situation as that which I have described, with an immense population flooding in, there are conditions which must cause the greatest possible concern to everybody and which do make rioting more probable. It would be folly to deny that. I cannot imagine any more difficult situation for any Government to control, with that degree of inflowing of population of refugees, homeless people, people who, from sheer necessity, are bound to go to live anywhere they can. The number of squatters is still horrifying. The fact remains that immense efforts are being made to overcome the difficulties.

Mr. Rankin

The right hon. Gentleman must watch his language.

Mr. Maclay

I do not think there is anything wrong in saying that. I watch my language. Tremendous and fabulous efforts have been made to overcome this difficulty, which reflect the greatest credit on those responsible.

I revert to the rioting. A fairly full Oral Answer was given by my right hon. Friend some time ago, and it was amplified in the OFFICIAL REPORT. At that time my right hon. Friend said that in due course, when more information came in from Hong Kong, that information would be given to the House. Some more has come in, but the full investigation is not yet completed. I think I can condense what has come in by saying that what was said in the original report seems to be pretty well borne out.

The hon. Member described in some detail the starting of the riot, but there was a curious conflict in his speech, because he seemed to know what actually caused this trouble to break out, and that was completely different from what he had been implying earlier.

Mr. Rankin

The immediate cause.

Mr. Maclay

Let us look at what it was. It was the fact that there were strong political passions engaged.

Mr. Rankin

In Tsun Wan.

Mr. Maclay

This was in Kowloon. People objected to flags being put up. We have seen in our own constituencies certain minor incidents of that kind, but where they occur in these conditions and with strong political feelings running there is bound to be trouble.

But when we come to the other trouble, we must look for another complete reason, and this is where the Triad Society comes in. There was no doubt that there were people here in this conglomeration of population who were out purely for mischief. There were the criminal types, and there is this secret society which deals in destruction and in plunder if it can. There could not be a better opportunity for such elements. They see some riots starting in one part of the area and they suddenly have a chance of causing trouble.

The hon. Member must realise that even on the second day there were signs that the Triad gangs were using the putting up of flags on houses and the going round with flags to provoke disorder, but that was not political disorder. On all available information it seems to have been deliberate trouble-making. The hon. Member appears to be indicating assent. He did not give quite the same gloss on his speech as he is giving in his nodded agreement with what I am saying.

As to the reform of the constitution. I think that the hon. Member knows already—but I repeat it in the light of his speech—that serious consideration was given to constitutional reform after the war. But very little has been done, except in the urban council, for the simple reason that there seems to be no clear evidence of a desire for constitutional reform. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies has been out there fairly recently. He consulted everybody who was available but there was no substantial evidence of a demand for constitutional reform of the kind that is going on in other parts of the world.

Certain changes have been made in the urban council. The number of nominated members has been increased from six to eight and of elected members from four to eight. That change was in accordance with the desires of the people there.

I am sorry that the hon. Member made an attack on the Labour Department of the Hong Kong Government. I had no warning of that part of his speech. There is no reason why I should have been given warning, but had I been given it I would have known more about the circumstances of Mr. Baker. I will look into the matter and see whether there is anything useful about which I can write to the hon. Member. I regret that the hon. Member should have felt dis- posed to make that attack. I am not sure when I should sit down, but I think that it is about now—

Mr. Rankin rose

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.