As protests have swept Hong Kong in the last few weeks, we begin an occasional series on the British Empire with a double episode on a previous wave of demonstrations, riots, strikes and bombings in the city, then a British colony. We speak with three people who were there about what happened, and learn new revelations about one of Hong Kong’s most notorious unsolved murders – of radio commentator Lam Bun.

We interview to Zhou Yi (Chau Yick/周奕), Leung Po Lung (梁寶龍) and Chui Yat Keung (徐日強) who were in Hong Kong at the time, as well as Lala, an activist and historian who interpreted for us and spoke about her research.
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  • Part 1

E30: The Hong Kong riots 1967, part 1 Working Class History

  • Part 2

E31: The Hong Kong riots 1967, part 2 Working Class History

Media

A gallery of photographs of the events:

These are photographs of our interviewees (click for captions):

Related reading

Through our online store we are now making available a curated selection of books with further and related reading on numerous topics related to our content. This week we are happy to make available Maoism and the Chinese Revolution: A Critical Introduction by Elliott Liu. This helps fill in some of the background information about the Chinese revolution, the PRC and the leftist movement. Published by an independent workers’ cooperative, and proceeds help fund our work.

More information

In addition to our interviews and existing knowledge, here are some of the sources of information used in the episodes

Acknowledgements

Thanks very much to our patreon supporters for enabling us to produce this podcast
Theme music for this episode is a 1966 Chinese recording of The Internationale
Thanks also to our friends at Chuang, a journal and website chronicling the development of capitalism in China and struggles against it, for connecting us with our interviewees. They have also recently published an analysis of the current anti-extradition protest movement, as well as this informative interview about it with local activists.

Corrections

Apologies for our host mispronouncing Aotearoa early in part 1

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Transcript

Part 1

John:

In the 1960s, a wave of rebellion was sweeping the planet. One of the places it reached was Hong Kong, then part of the British Empire. In 1967, for several months, workers in the city fought their bosses and British colonial authorities with strikes, riots and bombs. This is Working Class History.

[Intro music]

John:

At its height, the British Empire covered a quarter of the Earth’s surface, a fifth of its population and Britain has invaded or had some level of military incursion into about 90% of the world’s nearly 200 countries. Its death toll is truly incalculable and its crimes are too numerous to list here but they include things like: genocides of Indigenous peoples in North America, Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand; enforced famines in India and Ireland; concentration camps in Kenya, Malaya, South Africa and the list goes on. In Britain, lots of people are really proud of the Empire. Opinion polls generally show around 40-60% of people who say they’re proud of it, with only about 15-20% being ashamed of it. With the way that Empire is spoken about in the press and taught in schools, it’s not really surprising. Just taking myself as an example, in the entirety of my education in British schools, I got one 40 minute lesson on the British Empire about India. We didn’t learn about the Amritsar massacre, or the Bengal famine, or anything like that. What we were taught about was a thing called the Black Hole of Calcutta. The lesson pretty much went that British people went to India to build railways and teach them how to play cricket but one day, some ungrateful local ruler attacked a British fort, took the people inside prisoner and then locked them up in a small, hot room causing a lot of them to die of suffocation or heat exhaustion. Yes, it’s not a very nice thing but it was around 40-140 deaths, so peanuts compared to the numbers killed by the British. Also, this happened in 1756, so trains and railways hadn’t been invented yet and my teacher never really explained why you needed forts full of soldiers to teach people cricket. Especially as a British person and, yes, I am British, although lots of Americans seem to mistake me for an Australian, I’ve personally wanted to do more to learn and talk about the real history of the Empire. It isn’t censored in the U.K. but as George Orwell writes in his really insightful essay The Freedom of the Press, certain things are simply ‘not done to talk about’. As a bit of an aside, that essay about unofficial censorship in the U.K. was actually written as the preface for Animal Farm originally. In a pretty ridiculous bit of Orwellian irony, the essay itself has been unofficially censored simply by being left out from nearly every print edition of the book. Do feel free to check your print edition, if you have one, and see if it’s there. It probably won’t be.

We’re going to be doing a series of podcast episodes about the British Empire and this first one is about what are known as the Hong Kong Riots of 1967. That name is not really that accurate a description of what happened but the riots, or leftist riots, is how they’re generally spoken about. I was in Hong Kong the other week and was very happy to be able to sit down and speak with three people who were there at the time, as well as a friend and historian who interpreted for me.

Zhou Yi:

My name is Zhou Yi. In 1967, I was working in Wenweipo newspaper. I was a reporter and I followed the whole ’67 event from the beginning to the end. I was doing journalism work by that time.

Leung Po Lung:

My name is Leung Po Lung. In 1967, I was still studying in primary school and was really young at that time.

John:

Leung Po Lung is also a grassroots’ historian who has written numerous books on Hong Kong people’s history.

Chui Yat Keung:

I am Chui Yat Keung. In 1967, I was 11 years old and I didn’t participate in the ’67 incident but my father participated in it.

John:

We were also very grateful to our final interviewee for interpreting for us.

Lala:

Hi, I am Lala and I study in Taiwan but my research topic is on the ’70s Hong Kong social movement. In order to understand the ’70s social movement, you really have to understand ’67 because, without the ’67 riots, there wouldn’t be a tide of social movements in the early ’70s.

John:

To start off, I think it would be helpful to give a bit of background info on what Hong Kong is and how it came to be a British colony. Hong Kong is a city made up of three main areas: Hong Kong Island in the south; Kowloon Peninsula to the north; and the much larger adjoining New Territories which include about 200 outlying islands. In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a lot of demand in Britain for Chinese goods, stuff like tea, silk and porcelain. This created a big trade deficit between the two countries which drained Britain’s silver reserves. To counteract this, Britain did already sell opium to China which was grown in Britain but the British East India Company, the private corporation which essentially ran colonial India, started growing opium there and smuggling it into China illegally. This was really successful and it reversed the trade surplus but in China, it caused a lot of problems, both in terms of reducing their silver supply and also in terms of the social problems associated with widespread opium addiction. Chinese authorities tried various methods to try to stem the trade, including appealing to Queen Victoria’s moral responsibility but surprisingly enough, that was unsuccessful. Eventually, they started using force and started seizing opium. In 1839, the British Government went to war with China. By 1842, faced with Britain’s far superior naval power, China had to surrender and as part of the treaty forced on them, they had to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain. This wasn’t quite enough for Britain, however, who still wanted the full legalisation of the opium trade, so in 1856, aided by France, Britain attacked again. After four years, China had to surrender once more and was forced to legalise the opium trade. They then had to hand over Kowloon Peninsula to Britain, even pay compensation to Britain and France and do other things like allow Christians the right to start evangelising in China. A bit later on, after China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, European powers thought it would be a good time to take advantage of China’s weakened state to force a number of concessions on them, principally in terms of rent-free leases on different areas. In 1898, Britain demanded and was given full jurisdiction over an area of around 1,000 square kilometres which became known as the New Territories with a 99-year lease.

The following year, there was a rebellion against the colonial government in the New Territories but it was crushed by British troops, although, the rebellion did achieve a number of concessions like preserving land rights and traditional customs. Descendents of these pre-1898 inhabitants continue to enjoy these rights today. During World War Two, Hong Kong was occupied by the Japanese and after its defeat, despite the fact that the allied victors in the war all committed themselves to the principle of national self-determination, Britain took back control of the city. Hong Kong had always been an important trading post but after World War Two, the economy began to change.

Zhou Yi:

Because of the end of the Second World War, a lot of mainland Chinese people went across the border and came to Hong Kong. Firstly, there was an increase in the population in Hong Kong. Secondly, after these people came to Hong Kong because of the end of World War Two, there was a baby boom, so even more newborn babies were being born at that time. By the year of 1967, there were lots of angry, young teenagers. Why were they angry? Firstly, they were deprived of education because there were not enough schools, so they couldn’t go to school and get educated. Secondly, there were not enough job vacancies, so there was a high unemployment rate. There was a very strong feeling of resentment in society.

John:

This increase in population, coupled with high unemployment, meant there was a large pool of cheap labour ripe for exploitation in the factories. So the manufacturing industry, particularly of plastic goods and textiles, expanded rapidly and it was the conditions and grievances of these workers which largely led to the outburst in 1967.

Zhou Yi:

In 1967, workers didn’t have any legal protection. For example, if a boss wanted to fire any worker, they could just fire him directly and only needed to pay one day’s salary as compensation. Besides, there was also no welfare for the workers. For all Hong Kong people at that time, because we were under British colonial rule, there was some sort of national oppression and people were really angry about that. The anger accumulated and it burst out and the ’67 incident happened.

John:

Nationalist opposition to British colonialism in Hong Kong basically had two wings: a left-wing which was supportive of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and a right-wing which was supportive of the Kuonmintang (KMT) which was, by then, based in Taiwan. Each wing also had its own trade unions. The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) was pro-Bejing and the Hong Kong and Kowloon Trades Union Council (HKTUC) was pro-KMT.

Leung Po Lung:

By that time, the nationalism was very different from the nationalism nowadays in Hong Kong. For example, if we talk about nationalism today in Hong Kong, people usually regard that as nationalism towards PRC but in 1967, there were still two different kinds of nationalism. Although the 1967 incident was mainly organised by leftists who were pro-PRC, we can see in 1956 that there was also a riot that was organised by KMT supporters. There were two different kinds of nationalism we can see during the ’50s and ’60s. One was pro-KMT and one was pro-Communist Party and pro-PRC. Because of the British colonial rule, there was a lot of national oppression towards all Hong Kong people no matter whether you were left or right. There was a national sentiment being suppressed and the anger accumulated and was just waiting for something to trigger it to explode.

John:

One of the key events, which was a precursor to 1967, was a [s.l. series – 12:01] of protests in 1966 against a proposed price increase for the Star Ferry which was the main way of getting from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. The protests were violently repressed by the police which caused mass outrage and the protests were ultimately unsuccessful but they contributed to an atmosphere of defiance.

Chui Yat Keung:

I didn’t really know what happened in 1967 because I was too young at that time but what I know was from my father because he was involved in it. I can still remember, in 1966, when the Star Ferry riot happened. Most people were really excited about that and saying things like, ‘We should teach the British people a lesson. Finally, they should learn a lesson from us,’ so they were really happy about that. All I can remember, at that time, about the British colonial rule was that we were forced to learn English. Although I was the second-best student in my class, because my English result was too bad and I failed English, I couldn’t even continue my study at school.

Leung Po Lung:

I was very rebellious by that time, although, I knew that I would have a better future if I went to an English school. At that time, we had English schools and Chinese schools and when you’re going to secondary school, you could choose which one you wanted to go to. However, because I was very rebellious, I didn’t want to go to an English school and I chose to study in a Chinese school purposefully.

John:

These resentments were all still bubbling in Hong Kong when something happened in nearby Macau. To save time editing, from this point on, we’re just including the audio of the English translations of people’s comments.

Zhou Yi:

To answer the question of how the ’67 protest began, there is a short answer or a long answer for that. We have to make sure we know that the social atmosphere was that people were really angry with the government and there was a sense of grievance in society. Secondly, right before ’67, there was a historical event in Macau. An incident happened in Macau called the 12-3 incident. The Macau people stood up and fought against the colonial government and it succeeded in making the government bow down and agree with what they asked for. So the leftists in Hong Kong were really encouraged and thrilled by what happened in Macau and they were hoping to learn from the leftists in Macau and to copy it in Hong Kong and fight against the colonial government.

John:

Macau is a small collection of islands only about 40 kilometres from Hong Kong, which was then a Portuguese colony. Some of its residents had a plot of land and had tried to get permission from Portuguese authorities to build a private school sponsored by leftist groups. They didn’t receive any reply from authorities and so they just went ahead and started building it but at some point, authorities came in, stopped them building the school and then police attacked and arrested numerous demonstrators. On December 3rd, and so 12-3 (the reason for the name 12-3), riots broke out. Police killed eight people and injured hundreds and they declared martial law. However, protests continued and eventually, Portuguese authorities were forced to cave in to all of the protestors’ demands. By the end of it, Macau was effectively left under the de facto control of the PRC, while the Portuguese just continued to have a nominal presence. Events in Macau had a lot to do with the Cultural Revolution which was going on in China. To sum up, very briefly, the Cultural Revolution was a movement launched by Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China (CPC). He said that capitalist and revisionist elements had infiltrated the government and needed to be removed in a violent struggle. So Red Guards formed throughout the country to purge the more conservative faction of the party bureaucracy. It was, in general, a very turbulent and chaotic situation and Red Guards were involved in the riots in the Macau 12-3 incident. Many commentators attribute the 1967 riots to the Cultural Revolution as well but attributing just to that is a bit simplistic. Our interviewees all acknowledge that it was a factor but disagreed on the extent of its importance. The specific trigger of the riots was a strike at a plastic flower factory and how the police responded.

Leung Po Lung:

When people talk about the ’67 riots, they usually relate it to the Cultural Revolution in China. Of course, the two incidents have some kind of connection but you cannot say the ’67 riots were totally as a result of the Cultural Revolution because there was still a context in Hong Kong that we should notice. For example, before May ’67, there were actually [s.l. six to seven – 17:33] workers’ struggles already. However, those struggles were solved through collective bargaining or through negotiation. The workers and the bosses had certain consent and they didn’t really escalate into anything bigger. In ’67, firstly, there was a workers’ struggle which happened in a plastic flower factory. However, this time, the police responded by a really violent act and the riot police came in and they beat up people. This was very abnormal at that time, so this may also have been a reason why it escalated into something bigger.

Chui Yat Keung:

When we talk about the ’67 riots, I still think we cannot say there was no Cultural Revolution influence in it. For example, if you look at 1966, there was the Star Ferry riot and by that time the leftists didn’t even bother to intervene or to join it. I think the reason why the leftists in 1967 intervened was mainly because of the Cultural Revolution somehow. For everything that happens, there is always an inside cause and an outside cause which means there is always something that is really its own context. There is also something that is out of the context but still influences the incident. There is another reference that I would like to talk about which is that in April 1967, there was a central taxi strike. At that time, the police didn’t intervene in the strike and the police didn’t beat people up, so it was not like the 1967 plastic flower factory workers’ struggle where the police were really involved and they were cracking down.

Zhou Yi:

I agree that the whole ’67 incident has a lot to do with the workers’ struggle. I think the plastic flower factory strike was the focal point of the social contradictions at that time. The plastic flower factory was a really big factory which had different branches on the Kowloon side and also on the Hong Kong Island side. At that time, the boss was trying to cut down their bonus and the workers were really angry about that, o they stood up and fought against their boss. The boss responded by firing all the factory workers. The workers were really angry about that, so they went on strike. We can see that the second reason why the ’67 incident happened was that Hong Kong people were really angry about the police. Before the ’67 incident, although the proletariat in Hong Kong was under colonial oppression, they usually tended not to fight against the government because they were too scared to do anything and just accepted everything. However, the anger was suppressed for too long and the plastic flower factory strike made them really angry. What they saw was that the police intervened in the strike and used the police baton to hit people’s heads, so there was blood everywhere. Not only were the workers being beaten up by the police but a lot of other onlookers which included teenagers and students. They were teenagers who were deprived of education and had nothing to do were onlookers. The police even hit those innocent onlookers and this really made everyone very angry.

John:

One important element about this first strike was that it was by both communist and non-communist unions at the factory. Before the attack on the striking workers and bystanders, lots of Hong Kong people already had a great deal of distrust towards the police.

Chui Yat Keung:

At that time, the police were really bad towards the people and really violent. For example, I can talk about one case which was the death of Lo Kei. Lo Kei was one of the activists who joined the 1966 Star Ferry riot. After the riot, people found him and he had committed suicide but that was a very suspicious and mysterious suicide. Firstly, Lo Kei didn’t look like a person who would commit suicide and so a lot of people suspected it was an assassination done by the British government. This was just an example to show how brutal the police force was by that time and that they could actually do anything.

John:

Another Star Ferry protest organiser, So Sau-chung, who worked as a translator, protested with others against the suicide verdict but he got arrested and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks.

Zhou Yi:

Usually, if some kind of workers’ struggle happened and there was suppression, most of the time, people would stop continuing to fight and struggle because a lot of people didn’t think they stood a chance to fight against a colonial government. However, in 1967, this time was different. Firstly, they were encouraged by the Cultural Revolution in China. What they saw was that the Red Guards in China were really brave and that they were fighting against the bureaucracy and people in power, so they were encouraged by them. Secondly, it was because of the 12-3 incident that happened in Macau. The leftist workers and union members thought maybe they shouldn’t chicken out and maybe they should just fight against the colonial police directly. This was the first reason how it escalated. What happened after the police beat up people and onlookers, who were actually innocent, the leftists mobilised through their union network and started a protest. They marched to Government House in Central and I was one of those who joined the protest.

John:

Police violence against the strikers and bystanders backfired, in this case, in more ways than one.

Leung Po Lung:

When the police hit not only the workers but also the onlookers, the police were actually helping to spread the strike into a massive social movement. The factory was located in San Po Kong and when the police were chasing after the students, teenagers, onlookers and workers, they had to escape and so they spread to other districts, like the nearby district of Wong Tai Sin. Different people in different districts were able to witness themselves the brutality of the police. A lot of people saw, with their own eyes, how brutal and how violent the police were and so they were really angry about the police. This explains why so many people joined the leftist protest to Government House. I would even say that the people were lining up to get to Government House and a lot of people joined. That’s how it spread.

John:

Confrontations with the police proliferated around the city.

Zhou Yi:

The police first came out to target the workers at first but later, whenever the police appeared, there would be people gathering around them trying to figure out what had happened, so there were many people gathering on the streets. Whenever the police appeared, people would gather and when the police tried to ask these people to go away, they hit them and people responded by booing those police. This formed a vicious cycle and whenever there were police asking people to go away, people booed and it continued in that way. That is why a lot of people, who originally gathered only in the factory area, spread to Wong Tai Sin and the police then chased after them. After two days, a person was found dead because of police violence. The first dead person was a 15-year-old boy called Chan Kong-sang. He was a hairdresser and was found dead in the corridor of a resettlement area building. It is believed that he was trying to pull the police downstairs and the police reacted by firing a riot gun bullet towards this boy and then he died.

John:

Police killing a teenage boy caused even more outrage and more and more workers started to protest.

Zhou Yi:

After the workers’ strike at the plastic flower factory and after the death of Chan Kong-sang, at the end of May, there started to be more wildcat strikes. At that time, the workers adopted a method that they’d learned from the Chinese Cultural Revolution which was sticking up big-character posters. They would write their demands on the posters and stick them up at different places. Usually, they would stick them on some colonial government department or they would stick them on buses or Star Ferries. The first wildcat strike broke out in the Star Ferry company. Some workers were posting big-character posters at their company and their boss tore them down. The workers reacted by going on strike. A lot of wildcat strikes followed this formula and the workers posted big-character posters and then the boss tore them down. It would then escalate into a strike.

Leung Po Lung:

In the history of social movements in Hong Kong, it was very common to see a strategy we call ‘saam baa’ which means ‘three strikes’. That means a merchants’ strike, students’ strike and also workers’ strike. At that time, the leftists employed this strategy as well and they called for a merchants’ strike, a students’ strike and a workers’ strike to spread and to escalate their protest and struggle against the colonial government.

John:

Before we go into more detail about how the strikes spread, Lala gave some background information on how the left and the FTU, the pro-Bejing union federation, worked.

Lala:

The leftist union, by that time, was really good at organising workers. What I mean by that is they saw the worker not only as a worker but also as a dad to someone, or as a husband, or as a person who needed recreation, or as a teenager, or as a family man, or as a man who liked to go shopping, or as a man who needed education. The leftist organisations had a whole network, including the unions, schools and different shops. They formed a network to allow workers able to live in that network without going out to other networks. That explains why not only was the network able to organise or mobilise workers themselves but, very often, they would mobilise the worker’s family. Most often, the whole family would already live in that leftist world. The leftists even had hospitals. Those doctors may not have been licensed doctors but they were very experienced doctors. Maybe they used to be in China and they came to Hong Kong and although they didn’t have a licence, they had experience of how to prescribe drugs for common diseases or common colds. Because those hospitals were very, very cheap, so it was also welcomed by the workers and their family members. Very often, if you were a union member, your family would be in that network as well.

John:

Essentially, there was a whole parallel economy with schools, hospitals, shops and importers which were all either run by the unions or by pro-PRC organisations or business people. Wildcat strikes began to break out mostly on the buses, ferries, docks, utility companies, some government departments and some textile factories which employed mostly women workers. To try to quell the protest, the government declared martial law and stepped up repression of workers’ organisations.

Chui Yat Keung:

I remember that there was martial law enforcement by that time. About 3 to 4 o’clock, people couldn’t go onto the street. That’s something I can remember and I also heard that the police broke into the union offices and hit a lot of workers and union members.

John:

In this first phase of the protests, there were four really key events which led to the situation escalating.

Zhou Yi:

In conclusion, there are three dates that we need to remember about the ’67 incident. The first date is 6th May 1967 which was the date when the police beat up workers from the plastic flower factory. The second date is 11th May 1967 which was when the whole plastic flower factory strike spread and people were rising up against the police. The police continued to crack down and the people continued to fight back. The third date that we have to remember is 22nd May 1967. After the police had beaten up the people and the workers, the leftists organised union members and other people, of course, to march to Government House peacefully. However, they were also beaten up by the police. After the march to Government House, the leftists formed a committee, the Struggle Committee. The full name of the Struggle Committee was the Anti-Persecution Struggle Committee. The leftists organised different parts of society into this committee and tried to turn it into a social movement. Another date that we should remember is 3rd June 1967. On this date, the People’s Daily in mainland China published a leading article with the title ‘Provocations Done by British Imperialism’. Basically, the article was supporting Hong Kong people to fight against the colonial government. I was very surprised when I first read this article, mainly because I thought Hong Kong was strategically asked to be anti-American instead of anti-colonialism. I was very surprised to see there was a change in mainland China on the strategy or the tactic around Hong Kong.

John:

Indeed, this appeared to be a seismic shift in the Chinese state approach to the British in Hong Kong. Prior to this point, Beijing had actually been pretty happy to use British Hong Kong as a trading conduit with the West. So Chinese banks in Hong Kong were providing more than half of Beijing’s foreign exchange but as we will see, with all the domestic turbulence going on with the Cultural Revolution, it wasn’t always clear which exact positions, expressed by state-linked outlets, actually reflected the official position of the state and whether or not that position would last. The FTU decided to escalate their resistance.

Lala:

On 24th June, the general strike happened. The leftists organised 26 companies or units to join the general strike.

Zhou Yi:

The general strike occurred on 24th June 1967 and the police did something on 23rd June to try to scare people not to join the general strike. On 23rd June, the police searched a union and beat a union member which caused the death of that worker and they also used tear gas. The police were trying to threaten people who wanted to start a general strike but still, the general strike happened on 24th June.

John:

The general strike wasn’t supposed to be general in the normal sense of the word, meaning everyone out. Instead, it was targeted at particular sectors of the economy.

Leung Po Lung:

At the time of the general strike, the leftists didn’t really ask all people to join it. They were only targeting some industries or companies that were owned by KMT-friendly powers. For example, the reason why the textile factory was encouraged to have a strike was that their boss was pro-KMT. I have also heard that because the boss of Kowloon Bus Company was pro-KMT, the union really wanted the workers to continue to strike.

John:

A number of women joined the strike, mainly at textile factories where the owners were linked with the Kuonmintang but elsewhere, women played an important role in encouraging their husbands and supporting them going on strike.

Leung Po Lung:

Very often, when male workers were involved in the general strike, or in any ’67 incident, or struggle, or protest, their wives would support them. This was how some women were mobilised in the ’67 struggle.

John:

Although, of course, there were a couple of exceptions.

Chui Yat Keung:

According to my experience, what I witnessed was that my dad was really into the ’67 incident and was acting mysteriously and my mum was really angry with my dad, so she was trying to stop my dad from going out into the street.

John:

Schoolgirls and boys were involved in the protests as well, demanding changes to the school curriculum. On one occasion, 13 schoolgirls refused to return to their classroom after a bell rang. One 15-year-old, who was accused of being a ringleader, involved in that was jailed for one month. Lala’s research also uncovered some good examples of women’s involvement in the protests.

Lala:

According to the teaching of the Chinese Communist Party, they believe that women could also support half the sky because the sky is supported by both men and women. There is a saying 妇女能顶半边天. So there wasn’t any sort of discrimination against women participating in the ’67 protests or struggle. A lot of workers were male, mainly because those who joined the strike were working in industries that employed mostly male workers but there were still many examples of females taking part in the struggle. For example, I have heard of two examples. At that time, giving out leaflets was considered a crime and you could have been arrested. One leftist mother used her baby as some kind of protection or camouflage to reduce suspicion by the police, so she could continue to give out the leaflets. That’s one example I’ve heard of. The second one was the example of a mother who was also, of course, a leftist. She was afraid that she would be arrested because of her participation in the protest, so she decided to stop breastfeeding her kid. Her kid had to switch from breastfeeding milk to congee at a very early age because the mother was too afraid that the baby would lose her milk after she got arrested. She had to make the baby get used to congee as soon as possible. These are some of the examples that I have heard of.

[Outro music]

John:

That brings us to the end of Part 1. Our Patreon supporters can listen to Part 2 now. For everyone else, we’ll be back next week where we’ll be talking about the response from colonial authorities, the extent of the strikes and how the protests evolved into bombings and almost into guerilla warfare. We also have exclusive revelations about one of Hong Kong’s most notorious unsolved murders, so do check back next week. We would like to extend sincere thanks to our Patreon supporters who make this podcast possible. You too can support us and get exclusive early access to episodes, like Part 2 of this, as well as bonus audio, free and discounted merch and more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. There’s a link to that in the show notes as well. We’re devoting loads of time to this podcast through 2019 but this is only really going to be sustainable beyond that if we get to around 1,000 patrons by the end of this year. So if you value what we do and appreciate that our main episodes are freely and publicly available for everyone, with no paywall, no corporate sponsors, or adverts for overpriced mattresses or anything like that, please consider supporting us. If you can’t afford it, that’s absolutely no problem. Please just give us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or share episodes on social media. Thanks and catch you next time.

Part 2

John:

Welcome back to Part 2 of our double episode on the Hong Kong Riots of 1967. If you haven’t listened to Part 1, I’d go back and listen to that first.

[Intro music]

John:

Where we left off last time, street protests and wildcat strikes had been going on for weeks and the pro-Beijing union federation, the FTU, called a general strike. The response by the colonial authorities was just heavy-handed repression and violence.

Chui Yat Keung:

I remember there was a guy who was beaten to death by the police and his name was Lee On. Together, three policemen beat him up and then he died in the police station. I have also heard that when he was arrested at the Shaw Studio, he was beaten up once and then again in the police station and that’s why he died later. People tried to charge the police for the violence but that failed and the police were not prosecuted or sentenced. There was a nickname for the police station in Wong Tai Sin, which was the district next to the San Po Kong factory district. The police station in Wong Tai Sin was called [in Chinese] which means ‘the hell’.

John:

To try to persuade workers to keep up the action, the unions took the unprecedented step, at that time, of paying strike pay.

Chui Yat Keung:

During the general strike, the workers who participated were actually supported by the union. The union gave out money as living costs for those workers to encourage them to continue the strike. However, the colonial government never stopped suppressing the activities of the unions. For example, they beat up the union members, hit a lot of people and there was a lot of violence. All this contributed to the result that the strike didn’t continue for too long.

John:

It’s difficult to find out detailed information about the strikes. For example, the Hong Kong Labour Department keeps records of numbers of strikes and strike dates every year, except for 1967. The records seem to show that early on, in May, the wildcat strikes were widely supported. For example, The Times newspaper reported that on the docks, 3,000 workers walked out, despite there only being about 300 communist workers but they were also joined by the majority of non-FTU and even right-wing workers. The general strike seemed to be different. The pro-Beijing, New China News Agency reported that half a million workers were on strike but independent and right-wing sources paint a different picture of strikes of a few days taking place in FTU strongholds, like the Star Ferry, public transport and utility companies, as well as some dockyards and textile factories but not a lot elsewhere. Union density in manufacturing industries was low, only around 12%, and the KMT-linked unions weren’t taking part in the action. Also, as far as I can tell, it appears the strikes were basically called from above by union leaderships around pretty general, anti-colonialist demands. Unlike the original strike at the plastic flower factory, the strikes didn’t have specific economic demands for the workers and it seems they just didn’t really take off. In terms of the street sellers’ participation, government figures show around 10-50% of them taking part in the strikes depending on area but this lasted for a few days and was pretty much over by 2nd July. A little bit later, on 16th July, the seamen’s union went on strike to try to disrupt the flow of goods to and from Hong Kong but apparently, it was not widely supported and collapsed by the end of the month. With police violence escalating and the strike falling apart, some leftists resorted to different tactics.

Zhou Yi:

Although the police used batons to beat up the protestors in May, usually the protestors responded passively and they would seldom fight back. The only thing they would do would be to boo the police but they didn’t use any armed struggle or violence. Usually, they were passively arrested, charged and imprisoned afterwards. There was no armed struggle at that time. However, there was tension between the leftist organisers and also normal Hong Kong people. After the police violence, a lot of Hong Kong people chickened out and really want to stop things from escalating and, like before, they wanted to back down and not respond. The leftist organisers and union members were really angry about the police and they really wanted to escalate things but they couldn’t really do so because they didn’t have a lot of support. At this point, the leftist organisers were only carrying out a minimal fightback. For example, they organised pop-up protests where they would just show up in a place for five minutes, gave out some leaflets and then ran away to avoid being arrested by the police. Of course, they would continue to stick all the big-character posters up. Besides that, they didn’t do anything violent or extreme. They really had this feeling that there were suppressed and they had a lot of anger inside but both the colonial government and other Hong Kong people didn’t want them to do anything further. What happened and how did the whole protest and strike turn into a strategy of bombing in July? On 5th July, again, mainland China’s People’s Daily had a leading article which said [in Chinese] which means ‘if you kill people, you have to repay with your own life. If there is blood spilt, then you have to repay with blood.’ It means the same as ‘an eye for an eye’. That meant that if the police were killing or beating up Hong Kong workers, the article suggested that Hong Kong workers should fight back, an eye for an eye, and make the police bleed. That was when some armed struggle or bombing happened. On 9th July, at the door of Kwun Tong Police Station, the first bomb appeared. By that time, although there was bombing, you could say that there was a huge difference in strength between the protestors and the police. At the time, there was a common saying which said ‘the workers only have iron bars and spanners’ which meant they didn’t have guns. They only had very limited weapons to protect themselves.

John:

By the time the bombs started to be planted, police had killed at least eight workers and the bombing campaign marked a completely new phase of the protests and it caused mass panic.

Chui Yat Keung:

When the riot, or armed struggle, or bombing started, people were really scared. For example, my mum would ask me not to go out on the street unless I had to go to school and my mum also warned me not to touch anything on the streets. On the other hand, my dad became very mysterious and he would go to places I didn’t know and he would disappear for some time. I never asked whether or not my dad was involved in any bomb-making or related bomb incidents but I remember was that in the ’80s, one time, I was walking together with my dad at [s.l. Choi Wan – 09:03] Village. We saw an old man and my dad told me, ‘That man used to make bombs during the ’67 riots.’ Although I never asked my dad about whether or not he made bombs, you know… I also remember that, although there were a lot of bombs, most of them were actually fake. For example, at the time, I was living in Lok Fu in Wang Tau Hom and there were eight or ten bombing incidents or bomb threats but only one bomb was a real bomb. The other bombs were fake bombs.

John:

Over the course of the events, there were around 8,000 bomb incidents, around 1,200 of which were real bombs.

Zhou Yi:

I think the bombing phenomenon was really a symptom of what happens if a society is suppressed and oppressed by a colonial force for too long. At first, the bombing that happened was a response to the crackdown on the workers’ strikes. Usually, there were two kinds of bombing organisations. One was more organised and one was more spontaneous. When I say that some of them were organised, I mean they had an organisational background. For example, some of them may have been a part of the union or they were union members who were on strike and because they had nothing to do at home and they were receiving money as compensation from the union during the strike, they were thinking about how to make use of the money. Some of them came up with this idea of making a bomb. There was another kind of organisation that was more spontaneous and self-motivated, I would say. Again, I think it was related to or influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. By that time, Lin Biao, one of the revolutionary leaders in China, published an article which said ‘[in Chinese]’ which means ‘people’s war will win forever’. In that article, it had a sentence which said ‘[in Chinese]’ which means ‘people are going to fight for their own and then a village is going to defend themselves’. The main purpose of this article was to motivate people and to tell them that they were capable of self-motivating and utilising their own wisdom to organise themselves in order to emancipate themselves. It didn’t need any organisation to ask them to do anything but they were capable of organising something on their own and by themselves. There is one example that I would like to share. There were two people who were sentenced by the colonial government with a lifelong sentence for bombing. They had a nickname which was ‘The Bomb Maniacs’. These two famous prisoners were actually spontaneous and they didn’t have an organisational background. How did we know about that? That’s because when he was arrested, sentenced and imprisoned, people found out that nobody went there to visit him. Nobody ever showed up. It was later that people found out that although he was a member of the textile union, he was not ordered by any organisation to throw bombs. He was self-motivated and it was a spontaneous act. Of course, later, people called the textile union and asked people to go and visit him but that’s another story. When those bombs were made, most of them were put at places that were related to the colonial government. The ones who made the bombs usually wanted to target colonial institutions, like police stations. Later, more bombs showed up and they were usually put at some big street conjunctions and busy areas. By doing so, those people were trying to stir up society in order to create some kind of feeling of social unrest and to make people realise that there was something wrong with the city. When that happened, society had a very polarised reaction. On the one hand, some people (usually leftists) supported those acts and they were thinking, ‘The people asked us to continue to struggle and do something. What should we do? Maybe we should not just sit at home waiting for something to happen to us mysteriously. We have to fight for it on our own and self-motivate ourselves and be spontaneous.’ They came up with this idea that they had to stop the traffic and interrupt people from their daily routine and especially, they would try to obstruct the traffic during busy hours when people had to go to school or work. Of course, a lot of people were affected by these bombs. With the real bombs, they targeted the colonial institutions and some police officers and also firemen were killed or sacrificed. Of course, some innocent people were affected by these bombs as well.

Chui Yat Keung:

I can remember that there was a bomb that was thrown from some place very high onto a police van. It was dropped right on the police van. This is something that I can remember. Later, I transferred and went to a labour school where my classmate’s family had a union background. One of my classmates told me that he used to make bombs during the ’67 riots but, of course, they were fake bombs. There were a lot of fake bombs by that time, actually. With those bombs, whether they were fake or real, they would have a note on which said ‘[in Chinese]’ which means ‘home-made pineapple – don’t come close’. Of course, in Chinese, this was to warn the Chinese not to come close because they wanted to hurt the white, British, colonial government officials. They would write a Chinese note on it and metaphorically described such a bomb as a home-made pineapple. Of course, there were actually more fake bombs than real bombs and I think one of the reasons is that it was really difficult to make a real bomb and they didn’t know how to make a real bomb, so they just made a fake one.

John:

In addition to bombs by the left, some people believed that gangsters took advantage of the chaos to settle some scores and many other people on the left, including our interviewees, think that the KMT organised at least some false flag attacks, which were bombings designed to look like the work of the left to discredit the left.

Lala:

Chui Yat Keung asked, ‘Have you heard that incidents of the bombing were actually done by the KMT and that the KMT was trying to frame the leftists at that time?’ Yes, of course, I have heard about that. For example, there is the Ching Wah incident where two kids, one sister and one brother, were killed by bombs. I think that was totally a framing incident. The KMT tried to kill some leftists and they used the leftist bombers as a scapegoat in order to avoid being suspected. I have a reason for such an analysis. Firstly, this bombing incident happened around a leftist district. Why would a leftist bomb their own people in their own district? Usually, they would target other institutions but not their own districts. This is my first reason for that. The second is that usually when leftists threw bombs, they would put in on some busy streets or big conjunctions. In that case, the bomb was put in a blind alley where there was a one-way road. It was very quiet and not a lot of people were walking there. The bomb was also placed in a car and it was suspected that the bomb was trying to hurt the owner of the car. The kids were playing that area, unfortunately. Maybe they were playing with the bomb and that’s why they became the target and died because of that.

John:

The clampdown by British authorities was brutal and tensions were extremely high. Zhou Yi believes that they were at the brink of urban guerilla warfare.

Lala:

As a quick summary, by that time, I think Hong Kong was in a period of White Terror. For example, if you went out on the street, the police could search you if they suspected you. You didn’t really have to have done anything and the police could search or arrest you just because they suspected you. There was a kind of White Terror and feeling of fear in Hong Kong and the atmosphere was really tense. The second thing is that I think Hong Kong was on the edge of turning into a guerilla fight zone. Why I’m saying that is because the bombs were everywhere and actually, we call those people the Struggle Troop. I often think that if the Chinese government had given us guns, it would have turned immediately into a guerilla fight and it would have become something like what happened in Northern Ireland. The Chinese Government didn’t give the leftists any weapons and that’s why it didn’t really turn into a guerilla fight but we were really close to that. It was a very horrible age.

John:

By White Terror, Zhou Yi means right-wing terror, like by the counter-revolutionary White forces in the Russian Civil War. The situation did come very close to escalating. On 8th July, hundreds of people protesting on the Chinese side of the border, including PRC People’s Militia, opened fire on Hong Kong police killing five and injuring others. The police shot back killing a militiaman and fighting continued until British troops arrived. Leftist newspapers were banned; buildings were raided; schools were shut down; activists were rounded up and jailed or even deported to the PRC, a tactic that the British used to great effect during the uprising against colonial rule in Malaya. Royal Navy ships and helicopters were even used in some assaults. In total, around 5,000 people were arrested and around 2,000 of those were convicted and jailed, while at least 20 workers were killed by police. The leftists responded with more bombings and on 28th August, perhaps the most well-known incident in the riots occurred; the burning to death of right-wing radio personality Lam Bun, along with his cousin.

Zhou Yi:

Back to the Lam Bun incident. He was a presenter on a radio show and he was actually the director or producer of that radio show. He was burned to death… into ashes, actually. He was very severely burned and then died by those leftists at that time. A lot of people were often debating whether or not Lam Bun should die. I would say Lam Bun was a really mean person but the only thing he did was to commit some sort of verbal violence towards the leftists. What he said was really hurtful to those leftists. For example, he would describe those leftists as ‘shameless’, ‘cheap’, ‘obscene’, ‘dirty’ and so on and he did it every day. By that time, the leftists were really unhappy and had a problem with this guy and really hated him. The most hurtful sentence I think Lam Bun said was ‘[in Chinese]’ which means ‘I will just see how the red sun dies’. The red sun is usually a metaphor for Mao Tse Tung, so this sentence was saying ‘I will see when Mao Tse Tung dies’. Mao Tse Tung was the spiritual leader of a lot of leftists by that time, so this sentence really hurt the feelings of those people. If you ask me if Lam Bun should have died or not, I would say ‘[in Chinese]’ which means ‘If you have said something like this, then you should have estimated or predicted your own death’. This was how society worked. If you said something like that, you were going to receive the consequences of your own actions. This is my response to Lam Bun’s death.

John:

Basically, that seems like the Chinese version of the British saying ‘Chat shit, get banged’ which might seem pretty harsh but it just goes to show the level of division in Hong Kong society at the time.

Lala:

My dad would say that it was really worth Lam Bun dying because he was really mean and he never shut up. By that time, the leftists were really spiritually motivated by Mao and also by the Cultural Revolution in China. The way that Lam Bun insults the Cultural Revolution and Mao really made those sensitive leftists feel very hurt.

John:

The perpetrators were never caught, despite police and radio bosses offering the biggest cash reward ever in Hong Kong history for information. To this day, it’s widely believed that Yeung Kwong, Chairman of the FTU and Lead Director of the Struggle Committee ordered it. However, Zhou Yi then told us something that we were really not expecting to hear.

Zhou Yi:

I have exclusive news about the death of Lam Bun. First of all, we have to understand the history of Lam Bun. Lam Bun was a DJ from Commercial Radio Hong Kong but before he transferred there, he used to be a member of the Chinese United Movie Company, or something like that. He was a student of that company and was trained by a company with a leftist background. He used to be a part of the leftist community but then after he went to Commercial Radio Hong Kong, he was 180o opposite to that. He became the enemy of the leftists and he condemned the leftists every day on the radio. This really made his comrades very angry. One of his classmates in the training class at the movie company was the murderer of Lam Bun. What he wanted to do, at first, was to pour gasoline on him and he estimated that the gasoline wouldn’t make him die and that it would only make him burn and scare the shit out of him. He was estimating that after they poured gasoline over Lam Bun and they lit the fire, if Lam Bun was willing to get out of his car and then roll on the ground, he would put out the fire and wouldn’t die. However, what happened was that Lam Bun was too scared to get out of his car, so he was severely burned in his own seat in his own car. He didn’t get out and that’s why he died. The murderer didn’t want him to die but he was trying to hurt him. It was kind of a revengeful act because of the betrayal of Lam Bun’s own origins. The murderer also admitted afterwards that he may have been too extreme. Of course, I didn’t tell this to the police about the one who killed Lam Bun. The classmate of Lam Bun has already died after so many years, so that’s why I can tell you guys this exclusive news.

John:

I was pretty blown away by this. Clearly, Zhou Yi didn’t want to say the name of the person, presumably because they’ve got family members today who could suffer the consequences. So after discussing it with Lala, I decided not to push it but I definitely had not gone into the interview expecting to basically find out details of who was responsible for one of Hong Kong’s most notorious unsolved murders. In addition to Lam Bun and the two children mentioned earlier, at least three other civilians were killed in bombings, along with at least five police officers. With the strikes finished, the real and fake bombs causing havoc and the killing of Lam Bun increasingly polarised public opinion and turned more people against the leftists but there were a few developments which finally led to the end of the turmoil.

Zhou Yi:

The bombing ended partly because there was a negotiation between the colonial government and also the leftists. The information that I have, which I heard from a lawyer named William Lewis (a leftist lawyer), is that the colonial government contacted some leftists and said, ‘If you guys are willing to put an end to the bombing actions, we agree not to search your union headquarters. If you want to agree to this offer, you can post, for example, article A on the newspaper. If you refuse to accept this offer, you can post article B on a certain newspaper.’ It was like a secret negotiation between two camps. By the end of September, the leftists agreed to the offer and they posted the article A on the newspaper which meant they were willing to ask their people not to throw bombs anymore. In return, the police wouldn’t search the union headquarters anymore. That’s why we can see, after October, there were less bombing events. Of course, there were still some of them which indicate that at least a portion of those bombing events was unorganised by any union from the top down.

Chui Yat Keung:

I have another explanation or the information that I’ve got is a different version on the question of how everything ended. I heard from the teachers at the labour school that because there had been too much of an economic loss to Hong Kong already, they wanted to stop the struggle for some time to let people have a happy national day on 1st October, which was a national day of the PRC. They wanted to let people enjoy the celebrations on the national day. They received notice to stop the bombing, strikes and other events and to turn down the struggle, basically.

John:

A key thing which helped definitively put an end to the bombings was the intervention of the PRC. In December, they officially ordered bombings to stop as they’d firmed up their position on Hong Kong, which was basically that they were happy for it to stay in British hands. In fact, it only came out years later in 2007 when some of the internal divisions within the Chinese state, at the time, became clear. It turned out that a radical faction within the People’s Liberation Army had been prepared to invade Hong Kong but it was called off at the last minute by Premier Zhou Enlai. What was the legacy of the riots? Well, first off, there were a large number of prisoners.

Zhou Yi:

I think 1971 was really the year that marked the end of the riots or, at least, it marked the ending of the colonial government trying to wipe up all the traces that were related to the riot. What happened in 1971 was that all the young prisoners, even those who were sentenced for more than five to ten years or lifelong sentences, were released. The British colonial government was trying to end the whole incident by letting these people out in order to stop all the anger and all the resentment in society. They were really trying to do that hoping to gradually make the riots fade away in people’s minds. Even the two ‘bomb maniacs’ were released in 1971.

John:

In addition to the armistice, British colonial authorities set about implementing a number of far-reaching reforms to alleviate the worst of the economic hardships of the working class and essentially buy off the local population.

Zhou Yi:

If I really have to make a conclusion about the 1967 riots, I think they are three dimensions. The first dimension is that the British colonial government then understood that they couldn’t only use oppression to suppress anger as a way to rule over Hong Kong people. They had to develop more sophisticated strategies in order to rule this place. The second dimension was that there was very much an increase in social benefits provided by the colonial government to Hong Kong. For example, the Employment Ordinance came out after 1967 and that was only because of the ’67 incident that workers nowadays have more legal protections. Also, the government built more recreational facilities. I remember they put quite a lot of money into teenage work and emphasised the wellbeing of teenagers. Of course, the social security system also became more developed after the ’67 riots and poor people could receive an allowance from the government if they had economic difficulties. All of this slowly developed after ’67. The third change brought about by the ’67 riot was that the government started to evaluate the police force because they found out that the police was maybe too violent sometimes and that they had too many powers. I can still remember when I was young and found out that the police had their own casino near Russell Street which meant they were breaking the law. They were supposed to be the guardians of the law but they broke the law and made their own illegal casinos. That was how horrible the police were back in those days. In the ’70s, the government evaluated the problem of excessive police power in the police force, so the ICAC was established. The ICAC was an independent department that was responsible for investigating any cases related to corruption. For example, it was to prevent the police from carrying out corrupt acts. I think this was also the fruit of the ’67 riots.

John:

Some of the key reforms implemented over the next few years included U.K. style welfare benefits: job seekers’ allowance; old age pensions and disability benefits; the construction of new hospitals; extensive new public housing projects; a big expansion of free, compulsory education for children; Chinese was adopted as an official language in Hong Kong; some sexist laws were dropped, like the ban on married women having permanent employment; widespread corruption in the police, government and business was largely eradicated, other than the normal functioning of capitalism; large amounts of green space were protected from development. The massive repression of the leftists, as well as the collapse of the general strike, had another consequence for Hong Kong’s trade union movement.

Leung Po Lung:

I think the significance of the 1967 incident or riot was that it gave birth to the independent labour movement in the ’70s. That was only because the leftist unions showed that they had a problem or they weren’t capable and so this gave a place for the independent union, many of whose members had a religious background, to intervene in the labour scene and society in the ’70s. This later gave rise to the independent labour movement in Hong Kong which was all because the independent labour unions wanted to target the leftist unions. This could only happen after ’67 when the leftist unions lost control over a lot of networks because of the crackdown by the colonial government.

John:

While these reforms came about as a response to strikes, riots, bombs and then social movements that resulted from that time, this history is generally brushed over and credit for the improvements won is given to democratic reformers, as happens often with social movements.

Chui Yat Keung:

I think what changed in Hong Kong after the ’67 riots was that the colonial government started to realise that they couldn’t only suppress the Hong Kong people and that they had to find a way to govern them in a softer manner. This was a little bit like how it was in Malaya. I would say the leftists did a lot to push the colonial government to make Hong Kong a more liveable place by forcing the colonial government to consider giving Hong Kong people some welfare. It is because of the leftists that we can enjoy this nowadays but starting in the ’90s, the democrats often said it was because of them and their work that we had all this but I think this is not true. It is because of the leftists and the ’67 riots which really threatened the colonial government. This case is so similar to Malaya where the Communist Party were really helping and they were the ones who fought against the colonial government but it was Lee Kuan Yew and also Tunku who got all the credit.

[Outro music]

John:

That brings us to the end of our double episode on the so-called Hong Kong Riots of 1967. We hope you enjoyed it and maybe learned something new. As always, we’ve got more info on these events, photos and the like, on our website workingclasshistory.com and linked to in the show notes. We would like to say thanks to our interviewees, to Lala for interpreting and to our friends at Chuang for connecting us all. Chuang is a journal and blog chronicling and analysing the development of capitalism in China and working-class struggles against it, so do check out their website linked to in the show notes. It’s got a lot of really interesting stuff all the time, particularly right now, about the protest movement going on against the proposed changes to their extradition laws. To our Patreon supporters, again, we want to say thank you so much for your generous support which makes this podcast possible. You too can support this podcast for as little as $2 a month and get exclusive access to new episodes, bonus audio and more at patreon.com/workingclasshistory. There’s also a link to the that in the show notes. Catch you next time.

[Chinese 1966 recording of The Internationale]

Transcribed by

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3 thoughts on “E30-31: The Hong Kong riots, 1967

  1. Good article. The History of the UK in China and Hong Kong is one of merciless colonial exploitation and oppression. The reforms introduced there in the last days of the empire and included in treaties with China do not excuse the past. China may be sneaking in a brutal oppression, but the UK has no right to comment, especially whilst supporting other repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia.

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