Covert Colonialism in British Hong Kong

Florence Mok is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She holds a PhD in History from the University of York. Her doctoral research examined state-society relations in colonial Hong Kong in the 1970s. In this blog she reflects on her article, ‘Public Opinion Polls and Covert Colonialism in British Hong Kong’, China Information, 33:1 (2019).

This article investigates the relationship between the late reformist colonial state and the Chinese society in Hong Kong in the second half of the 1970s. Using under-exploited archival data, it overcomes the limitations in the existing literature written mainly by political scientists and sociologists, which is primarily theoretically driven and relies on published sources. It examines how the state improved political communications with the Chinese communities without introducing democratic electoral systems. It reveals that the Hong Kong masses were made structurally invisible by the Movement of Opinion Direction (MOOD), a polling exercise introduced by the colonial state in 1975. The public were unaware that their views were disseminated to policymakers and which affected policy formulation: this was covert colonialism. Through investigating confidential MOOD reports generated by the Home Affairs Department from 1975 to 1980, this article demonstrates why and how the colonial administration constructed public opinion. It also considers how political attitudes towards the colonial regime, the People’s Republic of China and the British government changed over time. These files disclose that political culture in Hong Kong varied in accordance with social class and age group, providing new insights into the public receptions of the state’s reforms and potential threats to the colonial regime in the 1970s. 

After the riots in 1966 and 1967, the colonial government faced a legitimacy crisis. The existing political system provided few channels for the public to raise their grievances. The City District Officer Scheme, a ‘multifunctional political structure’, was introduced in 1968 to bridge the communication gap between the public and the colonial government. How an undemocratic and at times repressive colonial administration monitored the changing political culture of the Chinese society, and how these constructed ‘public opinions’ impacted on policy making, have not been thoroughly explored. 

This article reveals that the colonial administration possessed the organizational capacity to monitor the movement of opinions in the society closely through a covert opinion polling exercise, MOOD. Since 1975, MOOD was the main official device used by the state to assess the shifting sentiments of Chinese people from all walks of life. To develop reliable and effective institutional mechanisms the manpower, time and resources invested in this exercise were increased. Surveying methodologies became more sophisticated and scientific. Contact lists were expanded, covering people of different occupations, age groups, gender, social classes and education backgrounds. The sampling size increased. The area covered expanded from urban areas, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, to rural areas, the New Territories. These constructed ‘public opinions’ were circulated and discussed among high ranking civil servants, including the Governor and officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, affecting policy formulation. Despite their extremely limited democratic rights, Hong Kong people were involved in the policy making process. Nonetheless, the presence of MOOD was concealed from the public. Far from being a tangible department with its own separate and visible structures, MOOD was embedded in the City District Officer programme. Its operations relied on staff from the ten City District Offices. The MOOD unit was therefore structurally invisible. Only head of departments and policymakers were aware of this exercise: this was covert colonialism. 

This article further points out that political culture was shifting and varied in different social classes. Political conservatism was still deeply rooted in the upper and middle classes, amongst this group people who mostly opposed political activism. The working class was on the whole less politically informed, and primarily driven by instrumentalism. Neither group demanded major constitutional reforms. Moreover, they were not cohesive and did not pose a major threat to the colonial rule. Political culture also differed in accordance with age. While middle-aged and elderly members of the society were politically conservative, the young generation, particularly those at the higher education, had a completely different political outlook. They tended to be more critical of the colonial regime and adopted relatively ‘radical’ approach, such as direct confrontation, to exert pressure on the government. On the whole, the public at large supported colonialism; a desire to maintain the status quo, an open economy, low tax rates, and social stability; and a lifestyle which blended Chinese culture with cosmopolitanism. However, the public was indifferent to the British government. Political allegiance to the British monarchy was non-existent. By contrast, the public adopted a more positive attitude towards the People’s Republic of China, a shift that affected even the middle-aged and elderly, who formerly viewed the communist regime with fear, hostility, and contempt.