Next week there will be lavish celebrations in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, this will also be marked in Hong Kong but in both places the real history of this period will be suppressed for both obvious and less obvious reasons.

Soldiers rehearing in Beijing for military parade. Photo: Tencent News

Hong Kong has had a consistent problem coming to terms both with the Japanese occupation and the (rather brief) battles that preceded it. Hong Kong’s former colonial authorities went so far as to take a never openly disclosed decision to deliberately suppress discussion of the most shaming disgrace that occurred during Japan’s three-year occupation of Hong Kong.

Discussion had to be suppressed otherwise the shameless collaboration of almost all the colony’s elite would need to be examined. It is no exaggeration to say that most Chinese families who were stalwarts of the colonial regime were either active or passive collaborators with the Japanese. Most were active collaborators, while a very few decided to sit the war out in neutral Macau.

When the war ended the returning colonial government busied itself putting a number of low level collaborators on trial and punishing them. However it was felt that mass trials of the most prominent collaborators would leave the Brits without the support of the people they considered to be vital in helping them run the colony.

Japanese Army assault on Tsim Sha Tsui Station on 1941. Photo: Mainichi Newpaper

The only real resistance to the Japanese came from Communist Party guerilla units and their sympathizers, particularly in the Sai Kung area, part of which became a no-go zone for Japanese troops. These forces also famously assisted in the escape of British soldiers who ended up in Chungking (Chongqing).

It is understandable why the former colonial authorities were keen to play down the role of the Communist resistance but it might be imagined that the post-1997 government would recognize their heroism and highlight their achievements.

However the new order has a problem because it is very shy in even acknowledging the existence of the Communist Party in Hong Kong as this entails being honest about the forces at work behind the new regime.

Therefore although the role played by the Communists has been given greater prominence it remains problematic. I happen to have attended the opening ceremony in Sai Kung for the memorial commemorating fallen guerillas, which was also attended by the then Chief Executive Tung Chee-wah. I have rarely seen a government official so acutely embarrassed as the veterans who showed up for this event openly used the word ‘comrade’ and made no bones about their Communist affiliations. Clearly none of this was in Mr Tung’s script and he could barely wait to scuttle away.

Japanese Army crossing the border between HK and mainland on 1941. Photo: Mainichi Newpaper

Meanwhile there is another aspect to this story, which is reasonably well known, but generally not discussed in polite society. This is the story of Winston Churchill’s decision to virtually allow Hong Kong to fall into Japanese hands because he considered that the defense of Singapore was all that mattered. To this end there was a cynical and unforgivable deployment of very young and barely trained Canadian troops who were virtually dispatched to Hong Kong as human cannon fodder. A local Canadian cemetery bares sad witness to this waste of these young lives.

The historical record also shows that when it came to anti-Japanese resistance on the Mainland itself the bulk of the fighting, and most certainly the bulk of the casualties, were borne by the Kuomintang forces, while the Communists, theoretically in alliance with the KMT, played a longer game aimed at weakening their allies of convenience so that when it came to the inevitable civil war, the reds would be in better shape. As history gets re-written these days it is not considered to be politically correct to harp on about the KMT’s anti-Japanese heroism, indeed on the mainland it is barely mentioned.

The fact that Japan was an aggressor and behaved appallingly as an occupation force in Asia is hardly in dispute but the needs of today’s political games requires it to be mentioned with considerable frequency and because of the Japanese leadership’s maladroit handling of post-war reconciliation, this sore is allowed to fester.

However the Japanese are not alone in having to come to terms with what happened in the war. As ever history is being used as a tool for political ends, its role as a tool of record gets lost in all this.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship