The British in China Theatre WWII

THE BATTLE OF HONG KONG, DECEMBER 1941 (HU 2766) Japanese troops enter Hong Kong led by Lieutenant General Takashi Sakai and Vice Admiral Miimi Massichi, 26 December 1941. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

We need to understand the political geography if we are to understand the strangeness of the south China front around Hong Kong. While the Japanese held the island and the urban districts on the Kowloon peninsula, they did not venture much into the countryside. Communist guerrilla units were able to operate there as a result. While Macao came under a great deal of Japanese pressure, it remained neutral, as did Portugal, but very isolated, and the British consul, John Reeves, newly arrived in June 1941, managed to keep active and cheerful throughout the conflict. Guangzhouwan’s French administration was Vichy in its affiliation, but also mindful of incurring the wrath of the Japanese. Nonetheless, with some bribery, and with false papers, and because some neutral coastal shipping remained active, Harrop was able to make her way out of Hong Kong. Guangzhouwan would be taken over by the Japanese in February 1943, but Macao remained intact, though compromised. Reeves operated from the consulate, which was separated from Japan’s by only a low wall, and his major responsibility came to be co-ordinating the provision of aid for many of the 10,000 people who fled from Hong Kong to the colony or who were shipped out by the Japanese and were housed in makeshift refugee camps; they were mainly Hong Kong residents of Macanese descent, but there were also Indians, Malays and other Allied subjects, including Filipinos. It was a huge and difficult task, but Reeves had the time of his life. He kept his consulate flag flying (and a new one was smuggled in to be ready for the day of victory), ran a newspaper (writing the editorials and limericks), and even chaired a Rehabilitation Committee to plan for a post-war Hong Kong. ‘I loved it,’ he wrote later of his experiences. Undercover Nationalist bodyguards watched his back, but he generally kept his revolver to hand (even when playing hockey). Macao’s war was a bitterly harsh one nonetheless. Its population of about 150,000 had already been swollen by 100,000 Chinese who had fled the Japanese occupation of Guangzhou in 1938, and during the Pacific War it rose to almost half a million. Over 27,000 people died of starvation in the hapless colony in 1942 alone. The Japanese largely got what they wanted from it, and so did the colony’s gangsters.

Although Reeves’s communication with the world of the Allies was mainly through radio, he was in touch with the other significant British presence in south China, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), established by Leslie Ride after his escape from Hong Kong. BAAG’s objective was to facilitate escape from Hong Kong, open communication routes into the camps where Allied civilians and servicemen were held, and secure intelligence about Japanese activities. It also aimed – rather more discreetly, for it was forbidden from undertaking any political work – to provide a forward base that maintained a British presence as close to the occupied colony as possible. From improvised beginnings in 1942, when it was headquartered on two former brothel boats in Shaoguan, 200 miles north of the colony, BAAG grew and developed an extensive network. This helped British, Indian and Hong Kong Chinese servicemen, civil servants and civilians escape from the territory, and assisted American aircrew who had been shot down during Fourteenth Air Force raids on the colony’s infrastructure and its shipping that began in 1942. BAAG was a uniquely home-grown organization, staffed in large part by Hong Kong people from across its diverse communities, who were even clothed in uniforms made in – and smuggled out of – occupied Kowloon. It flew no flag for the ‘Taipan mentality’, as Ride had put it, but it aimed to raise the Union Jack nonetheless. Although BAAG co-operated with communist units operating in the New Territories and with the Nationalists, Ride hoped to be able to make a dash into Hong Kong when the Japanese capitulated. It was important to try to make sure that a British unit – not the Nationalists, and certainly not the Americans – liberate the Crown Colony.

Life in the camps in Hong Kong for Allied nationals was harsher than it was in Shanghai, and it began almost from the start of the Japanese occupation. It was morally far less hazardous and politically less difficult than life outside, however. Hong Kong was ‘not part of China’, announced its Japanese Governor, General Rensuke Isogai, on arrival in the colony. Japanese Pan-Asian ideology and liberationist rhetoric might had led Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist government to assume that the British possession would be returned to China, but instead – in an echo of the story of Qingdao during the First World War – Hong Kong was annexed by Japan, and was promptly recast as a Japanese possession. The bronze statue of Queen Victoria installed to mark her jubilee in 1897 was removed and shipped off to Japan, and an imperial proclamation was put in its place. Japanese firms and settlers would shortly start to arrive in a city cleansed of more than its British monuments: streets and districts were given new Japanese names, language schools were instituted to teach the colony’s new official language, public ceremonial lauded Japanese military victories and their anniversaries, and the rituals and festivals of the Japanese year. As in every city that fell to the invader, a few local figures in Hong Kong aligned themselves with the new power, but others came forward as well, prompted to do so by British officials and motivated by the desire to see order restored and residents buffered as far as possible from the privations of the war. Most had little choice. The Japanese regime was at once bureaucratic, capricious and brutal. As in other occupied cities, different branches of the military and other agencies competed for authority and for spoil. Hong Kong’s population, bloated with Chinese refugees after the fall of Guangzhou in 1938, was steadily reduced through repatriation schemes that first encouraged, and then forced, people to leave. As residents were moved on, they added to strains on food supplies elsewhere, not least during the widespread famine in Guangdong province in 1943–4 that took a million lives.

In Hong Kong’s Stanley internment camp, and despite the odds, the British in particular began to re-establish what became a hothouse parody of their interrupted society and government outside the wire. The usual tensions between officials and the business community were intensified in an initial atmosphere of vicious recrimination, but the Colonial Secretary Franklin Gimson – the senior government official in the camp – established his authority in the name of the King (the Governor had been packed off to Taiwan, where he spent his time tending goats with his captured peers from colonial Southeast Asia). Gimson’s charges formed committees and set about reconstructing a sort of life, but with novel touches for the former colonial elite, not least as women and men alike learned to cook, and make, mend and wash clothes. Teachers taught and children studied; exams were set and marked and would in time be recognized with formal qualifications. The twin pillars of colonial life – alcohol and servants – were missing. The internees gardened, put on plays and concerts, held religious services, gossiped, played cards, and grew very, very bored. At least forty babies were conceived and born in the camp, twenty marriages contracted, and a few broken. The internees were ill-clothed and ill-fed, and there were few medical supplies. Fewer died than might be expected.

Like Reeves in Macao, they also got to work thinking about the future. In fact, there were no fewer than three rehabilitation and post-war planning initiatives. Reeves’s group had probably the most representative membership, for it included Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and Eurasians as well. Franklin Gimson had probably the best-informed group, as it included many of the officials who had been administering the colony, but in London the Colonial Office’s Planning Unit was the only one with any formal standing.48 All conducted post-mortems, and argued that the shock of defeat and the hiatus in British rule offered an opportunity to bring about profound reform. Whilst the Japanese did raise the prospect of handing Hong Kong back to China in 1944 (in a set of peace concessions offered secretly to Chongqing), the British had no intention of doing so. Hong Kong was now certainly a matter of honour for them, but it was also viewed as a significant economic and strategic asset, and it would be likely to be even more important in a post-war China in which the British operated without extraterritoriality. Already, throughout the 1930s, more and more British companies in China had relocated their legal domicile to Hong Kong in the face of Nationalist policies. A British Hong Kong was going to be more important after the war, not less. Still, there was a widespread consensus that there ought to be a more democratic or representative system established in future, with greater Hong Kong Chinese participation in the running of the colony. This, the planners in Stanley felt, could only entrench more deeply the type of loyalty and commitment shown by the Chinese in the colony who had fought, and died, in the ranks of Hong Kong’s Volunteer Reserve regiment.

There was of course a fourth planning group that discussed the issue of Hong Kong. This one met in Chongqing in the Europe department of the National Government’s Foreign Ministry. It does not seem to have achieved very much, but the intransigence of the British, who steadfastly refused to discuss Hong Kong either during the 1942 treaty negotiations or notably at the Cairo Conference of Allied leaders in November 1943, did suggest that there was little point. ‘We mean to hold our own,’ Winston Churchill had famously announced in November 1942, and he had not become Prime Minister in order ‘to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire’. The plain fact remained that, even in the face of a redoubtable push from President Roosevelt himself, Hong Kong was kept off the agenda. In other areas, the Cairo Conference delivered for the Chinese some firm commitments about the return from Japanese control of Taiwan and Manchuria, and the transfer of Japanese property in China as reparations. Except for the 425 square miles of Hong Kong and Macao’s eleven, the prospects for a historic reunification of China had never looked better.

The Cairo Conference was a singular achievement and at the same time a profound disappointment for the Chinese. It brought international prominence for China as one of the ‘Big Four’ Allied powers (although the discussions had to be staged in two sessions across Cairo and Tehran, as the USSR was still a neutral in the Pacific Theatre and Stalin only went to the latter session). But in operational terms the Chinese did not secure the focus on the Allied ‘China Theatre’ of operations that they had hoped for and which might ease the blockade through the reconquest of Burma. Nonetheless, Chiang Kai-shek wrote in his diary afterwards that the conference and the 1 December ‘Cairo Declaration’ formed ‘the greatest triumph in the history of China’s foreign affairs’. Not only China, but ‘the whole world’ treated it as such, he claimed. It was by any standards a remarkable moment in global politics when China’s leader participated in the discussions as one of the great Allied powers. Photographs of Chiang, Roosevelt and Churchill provided a startling glimpse of a differently ordered world. (It was not clear who invited Song Meiling, however, or what status she had, or why she too posed with the Allied leaders.) Roosevelt put a great deal of personal effort into making sure that Chiang felt the conference was a success, while Winston Churchill and the British were perplexed and irritated that so much time was taken up with China. The actual military discussions with the Chinese delegation were a ‘ghastly waste of time’, thought British commander General Alan Brooke. But the fact was that an impoverished Asian nation had been included because China was needed at the Cairo Conference if the grand alliance was to hold. Churchill still thought it an ‘affectation’ to pretend that China was a ‘great power’. He had no option, however, but to listen to Roosevelt’s rhetoric about China’s post-war role, and accept Chiang’s participation. But when the American President apparently suggested over a private lunch with the British Prime Minister that he might return Hong Kong as a gesture and lease it back, the idea was rebuffed. And an uncomfortable reminder of an earlier era for Chiang would have come when the British ambassador to Egypt, Lord Killearn, paid a courtesy call. This was the former Sir Miles Lampson, British Minister to China throughout the Nationalist revolution. Eighteen months earlier Killearn had surrounded the Egyptian royal palace with British tanks and forced the King to dismiss the government. British policies in China had always been on a continuum with such other naked displays of colonial brute force elsewhere, as Chiang well knew, having encountered them in Guangzhou in the 1920s. It was a symbolically mute meeting, in addition, for neither man spoke the other’s language.

The war’s China Theatre came under American command, and there was little for the British to do. So they focused instead almost exclusively on positioning themselves for peace, and in this were in synch with the Guomindang and the Communists (and many of the puppets). For the British the key aim was to rebuild their empire in East and Southeast Asia, including the reoccupation of Hong Kong, and assume as much of their position in China itself as possible, given that the privileges provided by the nineteenth-century treaties had been lost. The Japanese takeover of Shanghai, and then the internment of Allied civilians there from February 1943 onwards, was a gift to the diplomats and other leading elements that had long been weary of the burdensome distractions of the pretend-Raj that China had provided. There was now no opposition to the return of the concessions to China and the abrogation of extraterritoriality, not that the National Government was in a mood to brook any, but the eventual implementation of change could take place without local hiccups. So Jardine Matheson, ICI and BAT could focus on getting ready to resume their place after the war and secure their Chinese markets, preventing as far as possible those becoming too used to competing products.

The most spectacularly successful British operation in China during the Pacific War was the most cynical and revealing of them all. Operation ‘Remorse’, run by bankers and traders in uniform for the duration of the conflict, was established by the covert warfare Special Operations Executive in 1943. ‘Remorse’ established a huge black-market organization that generated £77.7 million worth of additional resource for British activity in China: a profit, in short, of £2.7 billion at 2015 prices.62 At issue was the National Government’s requirement that its allies purchase its fabi currency at official exchange rates that bore little relation to reality. This meant that when Allied agencies purchased goods in fabi they cost much more than they would have done in the United States or in Britain: a $5 shovel used in airfield construction cost the Americans $25 in China. They felt they were being bilked, and they were right, but diplomatic representations failed to effect a change in Chinese policy: any such change would fuel inflation, they were told. So the British for their part decided to bypass the process – which they and others thought simply profited corrupt officials – and to play the black market instead. First they sold rupees and sterling, bank drafts and all sorts of currency instruments, but then started to deal in precious stones, watches, pens and other high-value/low-bulk items, and at one point some particularly fine motorbikes. These goods were flown into unoccupied China from India and then distributed through an extensive and efficient network of agents and offices masquerading as outposts of the British Ministry of Production. It fulfilled orders placed as far into enemy-held territory as Shanghai, with goods sourced from as far away as Switzerland and South Africa. The fabi generated by ‘Remorse’ was distributed to British and other Allied organizations for their operational use – which was how officials squared it with, if not their consciences, then at least the rules of engagement. It was used to help ensure secrecy by bribing anyone in sight who might be of some use to the British effort in China, and who might be tempted. ‘Softening’ people was the term used, but ‘smothering’ might be more apt: it was later estimated that at any one time six tons of fabi notes were in transit in ‘Remorse’ vehicles.

The objective, ostensibly, was also to fund the extraction of intelligence, and to fund what operations the British could manage to undertake. At the end of the conflict ‘Remorse’ funds were airlifted to internment camp inmates, and into Hong Kong to help rebuild the colony’s currency, but running through the internal records of this vast enterprise was also the clear objective of keeping the British flag flying in the war-torn China market. Diamonds were the British businessman’s best friend in China, and this staggeringly successful venture – capitalism in the raw – helped these khaki-clad merchants of war to ready themselves for the end of hostilities and the new scramble for China that would ensue.

It is hardly surprising, then, that it was during the later stages of the war that Lin Yutang lost his sense of humour. As Chiang Kai-shek had never had one, his own attacks on his erstwhile allies were more predictable. The responses of both exemplify the deep frustration of a wide spectrum of Chinese nationalist thought over the country’s apparent position in Western eyes. For their part, in their now increasingly internationally known headquarters in Yan’an, the Chinese Communist Party had never held any such illusions. Most existing accounts of wartime relations between China, America and Great Britain chart the steadily developing disenchantment of the Westerners with their difficult ally. But this was a process that had its own dynamic on the Guomindang’s side as well. The Americans and the British rather hoped that they had wiped the slate clean by signing the new friendship treaties in February 1943, but this was an illusion.

Lin Yutang’s book Between Tears and Laughter was published in the summer of 1943. It began angry, and stayed that way for 243 bitter pages; there were no jokes. Five million Chinese soldiers have not died, he wrote, ‘to keep the British in Hong Kong’, the ‘booty of the Opium War’. The British had deliberately starved China of resources by acceding to Japanese demands in 1939 to close the Burma Road – its sole logistical lifeline once it had lost the coasts – and by now focusing on regaining their own Southeast Asian colonies first, before supporting the China front. The British, he charged, even refused to allow the National Government to develop its own air force. America was little better in Lin’s eyes, as in the earlier days of the conflict it had allowed shipments of ‘oil and scrap iron to Tokyo to bomb Chinese women and children’. His cynicism about British war aims was hardly unusual, and widely shared within the US government in fact. It was also a perfectly sound understanding of British aims.

Lin was also bitter about the hypocrisies of the Atlantic Charter’s elision of colonialism: Roosevelt and Churchill committed the Allies to respect the right of ‘all people’ to self-determination: but this was not intended, certainly by the British, to apply to the European empires. Lin also took his argument further, developing a rejection of the West itself, aside from its science, and its ‘materialistic civilization’. Still, Lin allowed that ‘all you need to do to make an Englishman a gentleman again is to ship him back west of the Suez Canal’. So there was hope for England. Meanwhile, China should see its allies for what they were, arm and strengthen itself, and then ‘nothing the Western nations can do can stop her or keep her down’. Pearl Buck and Richard Welsh, her husband and their joint publisher, had urged Lin to maintain his earlier, funnier, persona, in communicating Chinese perspectives, as a Chinese, to a Western readership. But Lin had tired of performing as the wise and witty sage, and like many in China, had tired too of the Allies. ‘Shrill, abusive and intemperate’, ran The New York Times review of his book; Lin was ‘smug, condescending and self-righteously superior’. It was, however, in many of its observations about British war aims and the pre-Pearl Harbor appeasement policies of the Allies, entirely spot on.

Lin could be dismissed as a lightweight, and as a cultural but not a political critic, and more space was given to reports and commentary on the corruption and authoritarianism of the Guomindang. Concerns about this were not assuaged by reports on the tone and content of Chiang Kai-shek’s political credo, delivered in a book published in March 1943 and designed for reading by party and government officials, and students and schoolchildren. China’s Destiny (Zhongguo zhi mingyun) outraged the diplomats in Chongqing. The British produced translations and synopses that they shared with the Americans, and reports flew to London and Washington, and out to the press, about what was characterized by some as a manifesto that could have been produced in any of the dictatorships (perhaps not by Hitler, one diplomat mused, but certainly by Franco). Its anti-democratic tone was less problematic for the British than its sustained critique of the record of foreign and particularly British imperialism in modern China. More than half the text was a lesson in retelling that history. Chiang’s book began with an account of the Manchus and their weakness in the face of the foreign onslaught. The succession of unfair treaties, and the depredations of the cosmopolitan collection of powers that sought advantage in China, were rehearsed in detail, while the injustices of the concessions and the International Settlement in Shanghai were all itemized. These were places, he argued, in which gambling, prostitution, narcotics and gangsterism flourished – which could hardly be denied – in which speculation was king, and which had destroyed any respect for law on the part of the Chinese people.

China’s Destiny was a signal that the surrender by the British and Americans of their privileges was not going to be the end of that story: imperialism’s impact on China served too important a function for Chinese nationalists. And this was not enough, as the book also seemed to lay claim to a greater China than was currently controlled by the republic, including Tibet and Mongolia, and it seemed to suggest continental Southeast Asia too, and all areas shaped culturally by Chinese civilization. Plans to print an English edition by the British Ministry of Information were quickly shelved. ‘I never saw a more pernicious use of history for political reasons,’ wrote the historian John Fairbank in his diary, ‘a tract unworthy of a statesman’. Another reader, Robert Payne, judged it ‘disturbing’ and ‘intolerant’. The book outraged liberal intellectuals and leftists in China as well, who distanced themselves from it as far as they safely could. Yet the episode provided further fuel for those of China’s allies who were beginning to question whether a country led by the Guomindang was worth saving, or could in fact be worked with in the post-war world.

More shocking were reports of widespread corruption throughout the Guomindang state, and amongst some of those close to the Generalissimo, as well as of murderous repression by its secret-service units, which was hardly restricted to the streets of isolated Shanghai. If Franco provided the text, Himmler seemed to be running the intelligence services. Such reports were presented as warnings by diplomats on the spot and by such high-profile China commentators as Pearl Buck, most pointedly in a May 1943 article in Life magazine, which up till then had been vociferous like all the Luce press in its support for Chiang’s China. The point that took everyone by surprise, however, was that the Guomindang remained committed to an anti-imperialist agenda, and at the same time aspired to regional predominance. If anyone had been actually listening to China’s diplomats in the 1930s, this would hardly have been so unexpected: it had been rehearsed at the League of Nations and repeatedly during and since the party’s rise to power. The impact of this ideology, deployed through Chiang’s book, but more widely in the educational and other vehicles used to mobilize the Chinese in the war against the invader, was also magnified by the more cynically deployed anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Japanese and their collaborator regimes.

Anti-imperialist nationalism might well succeed in shipping ‘Englishmen’ back west of Suez, but the Westerners would leave their culture and values behind, as occupied Shanghai had seen. The city’s particular forms of social and cultural modernity would remain embedded: the cocktail, the ballroom, gossip about Jackie Coogan, the Canidrome (still holding races as the war ended) and jazz. In June 1945, with the end of the Pacific War just a few weeks away, a perfectly Shanghai modern event took place in the Grand Theatre. Li Xianglan had the lead part in a jazz symphony, inspired by George Gershwin, and composed by a conscripted Japanese musician, Hattori Ryoichi. The musicians came from the former SMC orchestra, and were in the main Russians and Western European Jewish refugees. The symphony finished with a section that provided China’s first taste of a boogie-woogie beat, heard in a modernist hall designed by a Hungarian architect, and sung by a Japanese woman born in Manchuria. Such a quintessential melange of influences, cultures and people would outlast the war, but there was growing opposition to hybridity. A body of thought was developing, and finding expression in Lin Yutang’s book and China’s Destiny, that identified the problem of China as being not imperialism but the West itself, that disease not of the skin nor the heart but of the soul. It was not Western power but Western culture that had despoiled the essence of 5,000 years of Han Chinese history, and humiliated, degraded and enslaved the Chinese. As Lin Yutang put it, in his own introduction to the official English translation of China’s Destiny, published in January 1947, there was a need for ‘cultural and moral reconstruction’ to accompany ‘political revolution’. From such seeming platitudes, great horrors would yet evolve.