Today we are introducing an article ‘Disseminating and Containing Communist Propaganda to Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia through Hong Kong, the Cold War Pivot, 1949–1960’ by Florence Mok, Department of History, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
During the Cold War, Hong Kong played a crucial role as a strategic location for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to disseminate printed propaganda to overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia. From 1949 onwards, the CCP established a strong presence in Hong Kong’s publishing and book retail industries, utilizing the capitalist environment of the city to expand its cultural influence. This ironic situation allowed the CCP to outperform the capitalists they opposed in terms of expanding their reach.
Intelligence gathered by British agencies at the time indicated that Chinese psychological warfare through print media was seen as a genuine threat to both colonial and post-colonial states in Southeast Asia. The number of left-wing printers, publishers, and bookshops in Hong Kong increased, and the importation of Chinese communist literature to Southeast Asia surged in the late 1950s.
The left-wing propaganda disseminated through Hong Kong included magazines that cultivated Chinese patriotism and affirmed the legitimacy of the CCP, as well as a limited number of books detailing revolutionary and communist ideologies. Analyzing surviving samples of these texts reveals shifts in Chinese statecraft and highlights tensions within the CCP between domestic and foreign policies, as well as between the promotion of radical ideologies and pragmatic considerations. Most of the left-wing propaganda adopted a soft approach, devoid of subversiveness, reflecting a policy of peaceful coexistence and the practical need to attract foreign remittances. However, the CCP also aimed to inform overseas Chinese about the socialist transformation taking place in China.
The article also sheds light on the tensions between United States agencies and the colonial administration of Hong Kong regarding how to control the influx of Chinese communist literature. While the United States expected strict control and even censorship of Chinese communist propaganda, the colonial government refused to comply, arguing that it was safeguarding basic legal freedoms. The Hong Kong government was also motivated by pragmatic concerns, fearing that a hard-line approach could lead to internal unrest and further deterioration of Sino-British relations. As a result, decolonizing Southeast Asian countries took their own initiatives to strengthen controls on imported communist books and periodicals, demonstrating how Hong Kong became a pivotal battleground in the propaganda war waged across Southeast Asia in the 1950s.