Hong Kong’s 1967 riots taught lessons that can’t be forgotten

As the city prepares to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its return to China, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots is being treated less joyously. But as dark as those tragic events were, we should not ignore them

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 1:18am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 May, 2017, 1:18am

Two milestone anniversaries important to Hong Kong’s history fall this year. One, the 20th commemoration of our city’s return to China, will be widely celebrated. The other, the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots, is being treated less joyously. But as dark as the tragic events of the riots were, we should not ignore them as they taught valuable lessons that cannot be forgotten.

The riots were perhaps Hong Kong’s most traumatic experience since the second world war. British colonial misrule and a radicalised spillover of China’s Cultural Revolution converged in May 1967 with labour unrest agitated by the local chapter of the Communist Party. With the objective of seizing power, eight months of rioting and bombings followed that took 51 lives and injured more than 800. Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier at the time, eventually realised that turning to violence had been a mistake and called a halt, bringing an end to the calamitous events.

Witnesses to anarchy: the 1967 riots in Hong Kong, by some of those caught up in the violence

Colonial officials were shaken from their complacency. Their policies of paying attention only to the elite in society had led to huge disparities with the working class and poor. An influx of mainland refugees exacerbated matters and strained resources. The riots proved a wake-up call, prompting two decades of reforms that brought about an opening of the economy, industrialisation and policies to provide education, public housing, social welfare and better law and order, among much else.

It is tempting to draw parallels between those events and the rise of radical elements in Hong Kong today. The gap between rich and poor has never been wider, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing, young people perceive their prospects as looking dim and dissatisfaction is rife in some sectors with the lack of political reform. But it must be remembered that circumstances 50 years ago and now are vastly different. Hong Kong is again one with China, a reality being celebrated throughout this year. Our government is resource-rich and recognises the need to provide housing for the poor and disadvantaged. Opportunities for youth are being explored. Our future lies in building on advantages and embracing prospects offered by the mainland.

When the Cultural Revolution spilled over into riots in Hong Kong – and changed lives forever

The riots half a century ago were a painful event in our history. Some people who lived through those times would prefer to forget and move on, but there are also those who suffered loss and can never forgive those who caused such grief. Harrowing events are bound to teach lessons and many were taken up in the months and years afterwards. But there is one that can easily be forgotten in the rush to attain goals. Extremist thinking and the violence that too often accompanies it can never be allowed.