Under British Law: Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong (1931-33)


June 15, 2022

Under British Law: Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong (1931-33)
Under British Law: Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong (1931-33)

Volume 20 | Issue 13 | Number 1

Article ID 5718


Abstract: This article draws on material from Geoffrey Gunn’s Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong: Anti-Colonial Networks, Extradition and the Rule of Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).




Today, as a declared heritage site in Hong Kong, the former Victoria Prison at No. 16 Old Bailey Street, including the Central Police Station Compound and the Central Magistracy, attracts a steady flow of visitors. We may assume that at least some of them have prior knowledge of the former presence here of its most famous inmate, namely Ho Chi Minh. We may also assume that others with no prior knowledge learned of this fact through information provided by a guide or through a careful reading of signboards. As revealed by photographs and exhibits, renovation and expansion of the prison compound, which continued through the twentieth century, transformed the site radically from its earlier appearance, even if prison practices were little altered across the decades. Becoming a remand prison after World War II, the prison began to admit illegal immigrants and Vietnamese “boat people” in the early 1980s. It was decommissioned in 2006.

Ho Chi Minh is believed to have been incarcerated in Victoria Prison’s B-Hall, constructed in 1914, and visitors today can certainly imagine the circumstances both inside the cells and in adjoining courtyards. A major attempt has been made through dioramas to capture the atmosphere. Nevertheless, Ho Chi Minh’s prison number along with cell number do not appear to have been researched against prison documents, even allowing for modifications over time to the prison halls. Although Ho Chi Minh’s former presence is boldly announced on the exterior of the red brick walls of B-Hall, he is in no sense memorialized. Inside B-Hall his name is referenced alongside Filipino nationalist, José Rizal, who made an inspection visit to the prison in 1892, inter alia describing harsh conditions. However, the names of a number of other illustrious inmates of Victoria Prison are simply not acknowledged, such as a Vietnamese prince and an Indonesian revolutionary, on whom we have much more to say. No other exhibit or piece of evidence links Ho Chi Minh with B-Hall, much less any particular cell. As explained to the author by a museum guide, the presence of a trilingual English–Chinese–Vietnamese notice in B-Hall was actually for the benefit of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the 1980s.


Victoria Prison, Hong Kong, B-Hall (Source: author).


Victoria Prison, Hong Kong, typical cell, B-Hall (Source: author).


Victoria Prison, Hong Kong, museum model (Source: author).


As announced in the Hong Kong media almost ninety years ago, the arrest in the British colony of the Vietnamese revolutionary then going by the Cantonese pseudonym Sung Man Cho led to one of the most important trials in local legal history. Apprehended on June 6, 1931 in a tenement in Kowloon City along with a young Vietnamese woman described in court documents as his niece, Ho Chi Minh’s subsequent incarceration along with court appearances was widely reported at the time. As the South China Morning Post of August 9, 1932 wrote, “much of the inner history of the earlier proceedings will never be known, except by the Government officials concerned.”1 Possibly so, but it is a challenge worth pursuing. While the life and times of Ho Chi Minh, including the Hong Kong episode, are standard fare for an audience in Vietnam today, much less has appeared on this subject in Western writing. Less well known, because it was not reported in the local media – and because he was long demonized in Indonesia under the generals – was the simultaneous incarceration in Victoria Prison of leading Indonesian nationalist-communist theorist and then roving Moscow agent Tan Malaka.

In fact, as Hong Kong governor of the day, Sir William Peel, reported to London at the time of Ho Chi Minh’s final exit from the colony on January 25, 1933:


I must draw your attention to the very unsatisfactory position which this case and similar one of Tan Malaka reveals. The police of this Colony have had in their hands two of the most dangerous of Moscow’s agents in the Far East but have been powerless to do anything beyond deporting them from Hong Kong to prevent them from continuing to work for subversion of European rule in the Far East.2


While Governor Peel was not wrong in his estimations of the dangers posed by Ho Chi Minh and Tan Malaka to colonial order, within the decade it was actually militarist Japan that would achieve what the governor feared, namely the invasion and occupation of the European colonies in Southeast Asia. As modern history informs us, the defeat by Japan in 1942 of the Dutch in the sprawling Netherlands East Indies and the total eclipse of the collaborationist Vichy French regime in Indochina in March 1945 provided the power vacuum necessary for the nationalists to lever themselves into power. In epochal events at the moment when the Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed in Jakarta on August 17, 1945, Tan Malaka was in the thick of things, as indeed was Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi prior to declaring the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) on September 2, 1945. On the other hand, the Ho Chi Minh and Tan Malaka cases – their respective arrests and release from captivity in Hong Kong – can and have been upheld as exemplars of British rule of law and jurisprudence. This is all the more apparent with its attention to procedural detail and rights of appeal, especially with respect to extradition involving political cases. Indeed, these are principles not without resonance in many parts of the world today, Hong Kong included. This came to world attention in 2019 with respect to wide-scale acts of civil disobedience against a proposed bill that could allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China to face charges, inter alia leading many to question the enduring nature and status of the legal jurisdiction in Hong Kong to which Ho Chi Minh evidently owed his life.


Ho Chi Minh (Sung Man Cho), Victoria Prison, 1930
(Source: Archives nationales d’outre-mer, HCI SPCE 364, with permission).


Sung Man Cho v. Superintendent of Prisons

A landmark moment in the legal drama was the Sung Man Cho v. Superintendent of Prisons case, as the trial proceedings involving Ho Chi Minh were known in the Hong Kong Supreme Court as well as at his appeal to the Privy Council in London, then the final appellate court for Hong Kong. With Tan Malaka winning his freedom through a different process, we seek to assay just how the Sung Man Cho v. Superintendent of Prisons case came to test Hong Kong’s legal system with respect to the adjudication of deportation and extradition cases. To this end, new light is brought to bear upon the contradictions and moral dilemmas faced by the British colonial authorities in handling this case through the lens of newly available or long-ignored archival material. Thus the distinguishing feature of this work, as opposed to the numerous general biographies on Ho Chi Minh, is the attention paid to a reconstruction of the legal environment surrounding his case in Hong Kong, the ensuing British intramural bureaucratic exchanges, the diplomatic interventions by the French, and the local and international media environment. 

Revered in Vietnam today as a father-figure of his nation, just fifteen years prior to his declaration of independence, Ho Chi Minh’s life was under threat should the British accede to French requests for his extradition or deportation to a French port (even if granted a deferred sentence). As he well knew, the death sentence handed down in his native land hung over him like the sword of Damocles. With Ho Chi Minh spending twenty months in detention in Hong Kong (from June 6, 1931, to January 22, 1933), the Hong Kong public could not get enough of the story of his arrest and trial. Newspapers displayed banner headlines of the complex legal proceedings transpiring in Hong Kong and London until the moment of his vindication or at least his escape from deportation to French territory, the storyline from the British colony as to rule of law and justice still masked many of the basic facts. With Ho Chi Minh well known to the French authorities as Nguyen Ai Quoc, dating back to his youthful intervention at the 1919 peace talks in Versailles, and as a master revolutionary seeking to bring down French rule in its colonial sphere, at the time of his incarceration in the British colony, communist rebellion had just broken out in central Vietnam and it was assumed that he had a determining influence on the events.


Appeal to the Privy Council

Time passed. Reports on the court case in Hong Kong and appeal to the Privy Council in London jostled for newspaper space with the global economic depression, the first Japanese military assaults on China, Chiang Kai-shek’s ongoing purge of the Left, and many other local events. Even with an appeal to the Privy Council pending, in October 1931 the ruling British Labour government with its strong democratic socialist Fabian Society component suffered an electoral defeat and a national coalition took over. Moreover, once Ho Chi Minh departed the scene following his secret release by the Hong Kong government on January 22, 1933, he was no longer news. Moreover, reports of his death were falsified in a bid to throw off his pursuers.

As Dennis J. Duncanson wrote in his landmark article of 1974, “error has persisted over the Hong Kong episode,” especially with respect to an appeal on his behalf to the Privy Council on a suit for writ of habeas corpus, among other details. “No full account of these years in Ho-chi-Minh’s life is likely ever to be possible,” he asserted, noting that the police, administration and lawyers’ files in Hong Kong, as with those of Singapore and the international settlement in Shanghai, perished during the Japanese occupation.3 This is not entirely the case. It is precisely the survival of a volume of these records in French archival repositories that allows us to elaborate upon what Duncanson found missing, as well as to offer some corrections. Duncanson, however, had the privilege of talking to Mrs. F. H. Loseby, widow of Ho Chi Minh’s Hong Kong solicitor, as well as to Lung Ting-Chang (one of Loseby’s clerks), and even to A. H. Dickinson, the Singapore-based police officer active in the discovery of Ho Chi Minh’s identity and whereabouts. While the opportunity for this kind of primary witness testimony has long passed, it should not have escaped Duncanson’s attention that the French authorities – especially the police or Sûreté – were privy to most of this documentation and, indeed, generated even more through their network of local agents and spies.

That Ho Chi Minh could win his case in Hong Kong, going on to fight another day, also brings into relief an old debate in Vietnamese history during the long “Vietnam War”: namely, was the man a patriot first and communist second or was it the other way around, or even some kind of mix of both? Simply put, when he was arrested in Hong Kong, the Vietnamese “patriot” was also a Moscow-trained agent and the Soviet Union was paying his rent. As mentioned, rebellion had also just broken out in central Vietnam and it was communist-tinged. The British too were struggling to neutralize concerted efforts to implant a communist party in Singapore and Malaya following an abortive communist rebellion in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). The hand of Moscow, as Duncanson highlights, was clear.


Comparisons with Tan Malaka

While the biographical literature on both Ho Chi Minh and Tan Malaka is rich and varied, seldom have their careers been evaluated as part of a global revolutionary process propelled by the Bolshevik revolution and anchored to Leninist planning. They knew each other’s reputations and they personally met in Moscow and Guangzhou at a time when an Indonesian communist party was well established and the younger Tan Malaka’s revolutionary career was more advanced. As Oliver Crawford writes in his study of Tan Malaka’s political thought, both he and Ho Chi Minh were part of a Comintern or Communist International project in support of uprisings of the oppressed across the colonial world. “In this manner,” he explains, “Marxism allowed Asian revolutionaries to see themselves as part of a process with an unstoppable historical momentum, extending across borders, with a heroic past behind it.” For both of them, “national and international struggles were bound together, and politics could not be understood purely at a national level.”4 Tan Malaka was no less committed to internationalism although he was an early defector from the Comintern project in the interest of his own national-communist approach.


Tan Malaka
Source: Randy Wirayudha, “Tan Malaka di Hong Kong,” HistoriA, June 15, 2019)


It was in fact during the Viet Minh stage that Ho Chi Minh played the nationalist card to the full, exposing the failure of the Vichy French to protect Vietnam from the extreme hardships of Japanese occupation including mass famine.5 His ability to harness nationalism and self-sacrifice during America’s war is no less legendary. Even setting aside the hand of Moscow, many other factors were at play in the general evolution of Vietnamese anticolonialism, including family and regional ties, the pioneer actions of Vietnamese literati and patriotic royal figures – some of whom looked to Japan for leadership – the impact of the Chinese revolution upon Vietnamese reformers, the role of competing nationalist and communist parties at home, and the influence of Chinese and French left-wing politics.


Postwar Sequels

But that was not the end of the story, at least in consideration of Japan’s invasion and occupation of China and most of mainland Southeast Asia. As the war progressed, Americans joined forces with Ho Chi Minh’s embryonic fighting force – the Viet Minh – to undermine Japanese control in Indochina. This time, Moscow was nowhere to be seen. Ho Chi Minh had now connected with the American Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA), which supplied him with guns, food and, crucial for saving his life, antimalarial medicine. Moreover, in mid-1946, at a juncture when Chinese nationalist forces, after entering Indochina to take the Japanese surrender, were under the obligation to withdraw from northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh would travel to France in a vain attempt to obtain French recognition of Vietnam’s independence and unity. 

When no decisive progress was made at the Fontainebleau Conference of July–September 1946, hotheads and hardliners on both the French and Viet Minh plunged the nation into a thirty-year war.6 Famously, France failed in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu in its set-piece battle against the People’s Army of Vietnam. With the Geneva Accords formally partitioning Vietnam along the seventeenth parallel, the Western-backed State of Vietnam under the former emperor of Annam, Bao Dai, was replaced in 1955 by the Republic of Vietnam under President Ngo Dình Diem. At his invitation, America stepped in on the ground, launching its crusade to contain communist expansion. Although he was temporarily eclipsed as hardliners took control, Ho Chi Minh would return to the center of power around the slogan of Vietnamese unification.

Today Ho Chi Minh lends his name to the southern city of Saigon which his northern successors took over in April 1975 following the surrender of adversaries in the Republic of Vietnam (and with Soviet-supplied tanks moving in). In this great struggle, the sacrifices incurred by the unification-of-Vietnam-at-all-costs struggle were immense. Today networks of expansive and well-maintained war cemeteries provide silent witness to the fallen northern fighters and the southern comrades, even if those for their southern adversaries are in a state of decay. National museums tell an even grimmer story of defoliation, the American use of herbicides and the lingering effects upon humans of such chemicals as Agent Orange, the baneful legacy of unexploded ordinance, and the heroic sacrifice. In any case, this was a war which tore both Vietnam and America apart.


Colonial Lore on Deportation

With their separate jurisdictions, in the opening decades of the twentieth century both Hong Kong and the Portuguese-administered territory of Macau provided sanctuary for political exiles such as Sun Yat-sen and Vietnamese nationalists who modeled their political organizations along the lines of the Chinese Kuomintang. Although it is less well known, in the 1910s the Portuguese Republican governor of Macau, José Carlos da Maia, turned a deaf ear to French requests to detain and extradite anticolonial rebels charged with bombing outrages in Hanoi, namely the scholar-patriot Phan Boi Chau and his follower the rebel Prince Cuong De, born Nguyen Phuoc Dan (1882–1951). Phan Boi Chau was leader of what came to be known as the Dong Du or Look East to Japan movement founded at the outset of the twentieth century, and Cuong De was a scion of the royal family of Annam with its court in Hue, so that Governor da Maia may well have had reason to doubt that the pair were merely “common criminals,” as the French alleged.7 In addition, when Governor da Maia took up office on June 10, 1914, he rejected the Yuan Shih-kai regime’s demands to extradite Sun Yat-sen partisans then granted refuge in the Portuguese colony.8 In the late 1920s, various military opponents of the nationalist government in Guangzhou were also tolerated in Hong Kong notwithstanding immense pressure being brought upon the British to surrender them.

As the legal scholar Christopher Munn has pointed out, even though deportation and extradition were sometimes confused by local officials in Hong Kong, they had different purposes and followed separate procedures. By definition, deportation was the expulsion of a person from a jurisdiction at the initiative of the government of that jurisdiction whereas extradition was the surrender of a fugitive charged with an offense in another jurisdiction at the request of the authorities of that other jurisdiction. While extradition could be granted for serious criminal cases, it was disallowed for offenses of a political nature. Whereas deportation proceedings were invariably shrouded in secrecy, extradition required a hearing in an open court. Extradition was regulated by imperial acts and by treaties between Britain and other countries that extended to Hong Kong. Fugitives committed by a magistrate for a decision by the governor were allowed fifteen days to apply to the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. Technically, safeguards were required in the case of requisitions by the Chinese authorities, as with a guarantee against torture. As Munn points out, habeas corpus actions were successful in several extradition cases in the Hong Kong courts reaching back to the opening decades of the twentieth century.9

In fact, extradition clauses were inserted into the very first international treaties that Britain and other European powers imposed upon China in the wake of the Opium War of 1839–42. As Glen Peterson has pointed out, while the initial treaties made no mention of political crime, the extradition of political offenders quickly became a subject of debate in China, in British colonial spheres and in Europe around this time. However, by the 1920s and 1930s, issues surrounding political asylum and sanctuary for persons fleeing political charges in China grew increasingly acute, particularly at a time when China’s central government lost authority and warlordism took over, alongside the challenge posed by the rise of communism.10

The binding legislation during this period was the Chinese Extradition Ordinance of 1889, essentially allowing a requisition for the extradition of a fugitive criminal who was a Chinese subject. Formally the request was made by “some officer of the Chinese government.” But with the collapse of the central government and with increasing pressure exerted by provincial authorities in China, the British were moved in October 1927 to modify the Ordinance of 1889 by substituting “Chinese authority” for the term “Chinese government.” At the same time they sought to underline the need of the authority to offer “certain engagements” (precluding torture and other cruel punishments) if extradition were to be acted upon.11 The Chinese Extradition Ordinances of 1889 and 1927 explicitly ruled out extradition for political offenses. Besides China, protocols relating to extradition requests to French (Indochina) or American jurisdictions, as with the Philippines, also tested specific treaty arrangements with the concerned powers.

By this juncture, colonial elites in the British, French and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia were galvanized by threats to internal security such as were emerging from native nationalists, immigrant populations pulled by the politics of the homeland and upstart communist parties. Various legal instruments were devised to stem this danger using deportation and banishment orders. Banishment to countries overseas was usually effected in Hong Kong and Singapore on an order made by the Governor-in-Council specifying the ship by which the deportee was to leave and the destination port (in China). In those days many of those who were banished sailed from Singapore to China and simply disappeared. Ho Chi Minh was a French-protected person and a native of Indochina, and the normal procedure would be to deport such a person on a ship leaving for an Indochinese port. In reality, because at this time Asians rarely held passports, the procedure usually involved a “banishment inquiry” conducted by an administrative officer with magisterial powers, principally to establish identity and place of birth.12 Nevertheless, revisions to standard deportation orders were found necessary, as in the Straits Settlements (principally Singapore and Penang), where a number of agitators against Dutch rule in the East Indies sought refuge in the British colony. Hong Kong would follow suit in seeking to tighten its legislation, although necessarily involving detailed discussion with London and particularly the Home Office on the particular parameters surrounding British conventions on political refuge.

Political events also interceded in Hong Kong, thoroughly testing British principles on political asylum. Notably, the crackdown on the Left by forces loyal to Chiang Kai-shek in Guangzhou in December 1927 prompted thousands of would-be political refugees to descend on the border area with Hong Kong. This led to pro and contra views on the way the Ordinance could or should be modified, which came to light with respect to moves to amend the Deportation Ordinance coming into force on November 15, 1929. As noted in an official report, “The Governor-in-Council may therefore, at any time summarily issue a deportation order against any person who in his opinion is an alien, if he deems it to be conducive to the public good that such an order be issued.” This sentence amended Section 3 (2) of the 1917 Ordinance to counter criticism that deportation could be imposed without justification in a court of law, without inquiry to allow the person to be heard and without reference to any particular statutory provision. Henceforth the deportation order would include reference to the particular statuary provision.13

The hardline view was expressed by G. S. Moss, the British consul in Guangzhou, in a communication of December 9, 1928, to Sir Miles Lampson, serving as British minister to China between 1926 and 1933. Commenting upon the presence in Hong Kong of the former Kuomintang Left figure, Wang Jingwei, as well as a party of rebel generals from Guangxi, he deplored the legal environment where “outlaw leaders conducting plots against the Central Government authorities in Kwantung has severely endangered relations between Canton and Hong Kong.” Noting that the Hong Kong government was strictly bound by colonial law on extradition and deportation to the extent requiring cause in a court of law upon challenge of a writ of habeas corpus, he complained that this had acted as a block to summary deportation orders. In no uncertain language, he rejected the “stock” Hong Kong government argument that “the opponent of today may be in power tomorrow.” He also decried the “external casuistic legal view” that he found to obtain in government circles, “where extreme jealousy obtains of anything which might possibly be construed as interference by the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong affairs.”14

Supported by the British legation in Beijing, this view was nevertheless repudiated as “unthinkable” by the Foreign Office (May 22, 1930): “The Hong Kong Government would never, except under the compulsion of the Secretary for State, agree to this [political rendition to China], since it would in effect make the Governor-in-Council in this matter a mere puppet of the Nanking government.” Moreover, “it would of course be contrary to the traditional policy of His Majesty’s Government who have always allowed the country to be an asylum for political refugees and emigres from other countries so long as they do not make it a base for open plots against their political enemies.” He continued: “Hong Kong is no doubt in a special position and is especially liable to be made a base for plots against the Government of the neighboring countries, but it cannot tie its hands to the extent of agreeing to deport any Chinese subject without question, against whom the Chinese government made an unproven political charge.” As he further noted, the Chinese Extradition Ordinance did not provide for extradition on political charges.15

Apprised by media reporting of massacres in Guangzhou, including “bobbed-hair” girls associated with the communists’ modern style, the British left-wing MP James Maxton raised a number of questions in a letter written on January 19 to the Secretary of State for Colonies, W. G. M. Ormsby Gore. The officer administering the colony, Chief Minister Wilfrid Thomas Southorn, stated that between December 11 and 20, 1927, 246 people of Chinese nationality were detained upon arrival in Hong Kong (under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance introduced in 1922 to combat seamen’s strikes), of whom thirty were released in Hong Kong and another 216 were sent to destinations of their choice, with most proceeding to Shantou (then known as Swatow) and twenty opting for passage to Macau. Still others were refused permission to enter because they were deemed a danger to the peace and order of the colony. As noted, the extradition of Chinese from Hong Kong then came under the Chinese Extradition Ordinance of 1889 and 1927, which did not allow extradition for political offenses, although persons abusing the hospitality of the colony would be requested to leave.16

It may be more than just coincidence but even at the moment when Ho Chi Minh was arrested, revision to the Deportation Ordinance (of 1921) was underway ostensibly to offer safeguards against the deportation of British subjects. This had been prompted by the objection of Secretary of State for Colonies, the duke of Devonshire (Victor Cavendish), who called for an inquiry into the treatment of deported British subjects from Hong Kong (namely Indian members of the army and police forces) otherwise not eligible for judicial review and treated unfairly even relative to aliens. No action was taken for years, until prompted by developments in the Straits Settlements with respect to measures taken to neutralize revolutionary propaganda. Commencing with Governor Cecil Clementi (November 1, 1925–February 1, 1930) and carried on under his successor Governor Sir William Peel, a new bill was drafted and passed by the Legislative Council (April 14, 1931) as Ordinance No. 7 of 1931. A new Section 3(i) provided for summary orders against those banished from the Straits Settlement, the Malay States and Borneo arriving in Hong Kong. Provision for flogging of deportees who returned was rescinded and, with a revision to one article that may have applied to Ho Chi Minh, a detention warrant was extended to fourteen days. Practically at the last moment and over the objection of Hong Kong Chief Justice J. H. Kemp, the governor was obliged to cable London to suspend royal assent for the bill. As Kemp outlined, first, the bill “failed” to provide for a full inquiry for the deportee “before a judge in a chamber” as required all along (and as demanded by the duke of Devonshire) and, second, the revision “made the judiciary part of the machinery of executive action,” with judges “part of the machinery of deportation.” Although rare in its application, as he acknowledged, Chief Justice Kemp nevertheless cited a precedent, namely the case of Li Hong Mi – a British subject from Penang who fell foul of the law in Hong Kong – which went to the Privy Council in 1920, with the result favoring the deportee.17 As Christopher Munn interprets the first constitutional case in Hong Kong history: “the real question was whether the deportation order had conformed to the strict procedure set out in the Ordinance.” In this, the Judicial Committee decided it had not and the Privy Council therefore allowed Li Hong Mi’s appeal.18

In the event, the assent process was suspended and, as signaled in a letter of September 28, 1932, by Philip Cunliffe-Lister acting as Secretary of State for the Colonies, a departmental review was required, taking into account the main objection, namely “that it is undesirable to associate the judiciary with the Executive in the exercise of an arbitrary and executive nature.”19 It is some irony that the Ho Chi Minh and Tan Malaka cases together would galvanize the executive in Hong Kong to press for definitive new legislation to cover all loopholes when it came to dealing with international revolutionaries, not neglecting the rights of British citizens (principally Indians), as with the proposed 1931 amendment.


Western Versus Asian Judicial Traditions?

To be sure, anyone reading this book on the application of habeas corpus cannot but be surprised to learn not only how British law dating back to the Magna Carta departs from Asian judicial traditions as they apply in China and Vietnam today but also in post-American-occupation Japan as well.  In part this is a reference to contemporary Japan’s “hostage justice” system in which criminal suspects are placed under extended detention, denied the presence of a lawyer during interrogations, and often denied bail unless they have confessed to the charges. To be sure, as alluded, at the height of the massive street demonstrations in Hong Kong of 2019-20 protesting against proposed amendments to the law on extradition to mainland China, Hong Kong witnessed major challenges to its hallowed rule of law traditions of which Ho Chi Minh was just one beneficiary. In the welter of events during those turbulent times, some media did make allusion to his legal case and, to my surprise, one Indonesian journalist-blogger writing from Hong Kong also looked back at the “parallel case” of Tan Malaka in the light of the then pending extradition bill.20

My book also offers a separate chapter on the veteran Indonesian communist Tan Malaka, known today in Indonesia as the “father of the revolution” (although tragically dying in 1949 while maneuvering his guerrilla forces in a standoff on the island of Java against Dutch colonial forces). From an early period in Moscow, Tan Malaka, entered into debates (which may even have drawn the attention of Lenin) on the role of Islam in the world communist movement. Later in his career he would seek accommodation with Islam leading him to be dubbed a “nationalist-communist.” To create a nation out of diverse ethnic groups with low literacy among other challenges including a Muslim plurality was far more daunting than even those confronting Vietnam with its long central state traditions so he made adjustments in his thinking.

His and Ho Chi Minh’s careers intertwined, meeting in Moscow as well as Canton, and with both sharing prison time in Hong Kong. Just as the French demanded the de facto extradition of Ho Chi Minh, so the Dutch authorities in the then Dutch East Indies demanded – unsuccessfully – the rendition of Tan Malaka to the Dutch colony. Yet, their careers also offered contrasts. With Tan Malaka appointed by Moscow as its delegate for Southeast Asia, I believe that he was no less a communist than Ho Chi Minh. However, from around 1927 Tan Malaka also struck out to secretly launch a nationalist-communist party. As a result, a rift would open in Indonesian communism between a pro-Moscow faction and a Tan Malaka national-communism faction that would continue into the 1960s.

By contrast, Ho Chi Minh never wavered in his loyalty to Moscow even when starved of cash and support and sometimes severely chastised. As my book notes, just after the formation of a united Vietnam Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh sought clarification from the French Bureau of the Comintern as to his status. As he wrote, “Now, I do not know exactly what my position is. Am I a member of the French or the Vietnamese CP?” “I am not part of the central committee of the VCP because I cannot enter Indochina…what is my rank what is my office?” He received no clear answer except to carry on and with Singapore, Malaya, and Thailand added to his brief.





Anon. “Notable Trial Ends,” South China Morning Post, August 9, 1931.


Public Record Office (PRO) CO129/539/2 Governor William Peel, Government House, Hong Kong to Sir P. Cunliffe-Lister, Foreign Office, London, January 31, 1933. As he further lamented, by deporting Ho Chi Minh in the direction of Vladivostok, he was actually obliged to help him to return to the fold of his Russian “principals.”


Dennis J. Duncanson, “‘Ho-chi-Minh in Hong Kong, 1931–32,” China Quarterly, 57 (1974), 85.


Oliver Crawford, “The Political Thought of Tan Malaka” (unpublished PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2019), 112.


Geoffrey C. Gunn, Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), chapters 6, 7 and 8.


See Philippe Devilliers, Histoire du Viêt-nam de 1940 à 1952 (Paris: Seuil, 1952); Stein Tønnesson, Vietnam 1946: How the War Began (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). Both books discuss the timing of the Chinese withdrawal and how it paved the way for the Franco-Vietnamese outbreak of war. Also see Geoffrey C. Gunn, “Prelude to the First Indochina War: New Light on the Fontainebleau Conference of July–September 1946 and Aftermath,” Tonan Ajia Kenkyu Nenpo, 54 (2013), 19–51.


On Phan Boi Chau’s early contacts with Cuong De, first visit to Japan and the Dong Du Movement see David G. Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885–1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), chapters 5 and 6.


In making the case for extradition of the rebels, on October 3, 1915, the French consul in Hong Kong cited Article II of the Treaty of July 13, 1854, between Portugal and France relating to the extradition of “common criminals.” See Geoffrey C. Gunn, “Clandestinity and Control: The Macau Congress of the Indochina Communist Party (March 27–31, 1935),” Review of Culture (Macau), 45 (2014), 47.


See Christopher Munn, “‘Our Best Trump Card’: A Brief History of Deportation in Hong Kong, 1857–1955,” in Michael H. K. Ng and John D. Wong (eds.), Civil Unrest and Governance in Hong Kong: Law and Order from Historical and Cultural Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2017), 35–6.


Glen Peterson, “Forced Migration, Refugees and China’s Entry into the ‘Family of Nations’, 1861–1949,” Journal of Refugee Studies, 31: 3 (2018), 275–6.


Anon. “Extradition Law,” China Mail, October 8, 1927, 1.


For this author’s admission that he had taken part in such procedures himself, presumably during the period when he served in the Malayan Civil Service, see Duncanson, “Ho-chi-Minh in Hong Kong,” 90, 90n.


PRO CO 12/526/4 China: Deportation of Political Refugees from Hong Kong, 1930. Marginal note J.H. Kemp, Attorney General.


PRO CO 12/526/4 China: Deportation of Political Refugees from Hong Kong, 1930 Consul Moss H. M. Consulate, Canton, to Sir Miles Lamson, December 9, 1929.


PRO CO 12/526/4 China: Deportation of Political Refugees from Hong Kong, 1930 Colonial Office marginal note, illegible, [May 29, 1930] echoing opinion expressed by Walter D. Ellis, Colonial Office, “We may regard Moss’s suggested announcement by the HK. Govt. as one which is quite unthinkable.” June 11, 1930.


PRO CO 129/508/1 China: Treatment of Refugees, Southorn, Government House, Hong Kong, May 25, 1928.


PRO CO 129/530/9 Deportation Amendment Order 1931. J. H. Kemp, Chief Justice, June 10. 1931; Telegram from the Governor of Hong Kong to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, June 15, 1931; Li Hong Mi v. Attorney General of Hong Kong (1920) AC.


Christopher Munn, “Margins of Justice in Colonial Hong Kong: Extrajudicial Power, Solicitors’ Clerks, and the Case of Li Hong Mi, 1917–1920,” Law and Humanities, 11: 1 (2017), 120.


PRO CO 129/537/3 Deportation Order, 1932.


Randy Wirayudha, “Tan Malaka di Hong Kong,” HistoriA, June 15, 2019. 

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Volume 20 | Issue 13 | Number 1

Article ID 5718

About the author:

Geoffrey Gunn

Geoffrey Gunn is emeritus professor, Nagasaki University, Japan, and adjunct professor, University of Macau, China. His recent books include Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014; and Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong: Anti-Colonial Networks, Extradition and the Rule of Law, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus is a peer-reviewed publication, providing critical analysis of the forces shaping the Asia-Pacific and the world.

    About the author:

    Geoffrey Gunn

    Geoffrey Gunn is emeritus professor, Nagasaki University, Japan, and adjunct professor, University of Macau, China. His recent books include Rice Wars in Colonial Vietnam: The Great Famine and the Viet Minh Road to Power, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014; and Ho Chi Minh in Hong Kong: Anti-Colonial Networks, Extradition and the Rule of Law, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2021.


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      Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus has produced critical reporting on geopolitics, economics, history, environment, and international relations.