Obituary: Sir Robin Black

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WHEN ROBIN Black took up the governorship of Hong Kong in January 1958, he could have had little inkling of the impending turmoil across the border in mainland China that was to present the British colony with one of its biggest challenges since the Communists came to power in Peking nine years earlier. The challenge was not to be a military or political one, but one about which the tiny enclave on the southern Chinese coast has always been especially concerned - that of a massive influx of mainland Chinese immigrants.

Black had already become well acquainted with Hong Kong in his role as Colonial Secretary, from 1952 to 1955, under the governorship of Sir Alexander Grantham. Grantham was less than flattering in his description of the cumbersome bureaucracy of which Black, then a colonial officer of more than 20 years' experience, was placed in command. "Pomposity seemed inseparable from important persons such as the Colonial Secretary and heads of firms," he noted. "The machinery of the Hong Kong government was ponderous in the extreme, with great attention to detail."

Black would also have been familiar with the problem of immigration from the Communist mainland. In the year following the Communist takeover in 1949, more than a million refugees had fled to the colony. Black's term as Colonial Secretary also coincided with the latter stages of the Korean War and an economic blockade of China led by the United States. The surging population combined with the blow to Hong Kong trade caused by the blockade had put enormous pressure on the territory.

Two months after assuming the governorship, Black declared to Hong Kong's Legislative Council that, while Britain was still the sovereign power, in practice London controlled only the territory's external affairs. Hong Kong then was not much of a public issue in Britain. As governor, Black was in undisputed charge of a territory of well over two million inhabitants with a rubber stamp Legislative Council consisting of officials and colonial government appointees to help him. With two years' experience as governor of Singapore prior to taking up his Hong Kong appointment, Black was well prepared for his new job.

In the summer of 1958, the madness of Maoism began to wreak havoc across the border in China in a way that was to cause immeasurably greater suffering than the sweeping purge of intellectuals during the Anti-Rightist Movement of the previous year. The Great Leap Forward launched by Chairman Mao was aimed at catapulting China's backward peasant economy into the ranks of the worlds great industrial nations. The result was a three-year famine that cost tens of millions of lives and prompted many millions of people to flee their homes - a catastrophe deadlier than the Second World War.

At first, the Communist authorities tried to keep the starving masses from flooding into Hong Kong. Many of those trying to escape were imprisoned or shot by Chinese border guards. In 1962, however, the Chinese relaxed their border controls. Their motive, perhaps, was to ease the growing burden of a desperate population. In the summer of that year, a quarter of a million refugees poured into the territory, unimpeded by Chinese police.

By the time Black's term as governor ended in 1964, Hong Kong's population had risen to three million. He dealt with the problem in the way initiated by his predecessor - not by trying to send them back across the border, but with the construction of apartment blocks in huge estates. Black repeatedly appealed to London for help in the rehousing project. The squalid, fire- prone shanty towns that once accommodated the refugees were gradually razed.

The successive waves of immigrants from the 1940s onwards became the greatest asset of a colony with almost nothing in the way of natural resources. The desperate new arrivals provided the cheap labour that enabled the colony to become a leading manufacturing centre until the 1980s, that is, when industries began moving into China to take advantage of even cheaper labour there. Their industry, combined with the assets and skills of the entrepreneurs who had fled from Shanghai and other Chinese industrial centres after the Communist takeover turned Hong Kong into a world-class economic powerhouse. Even by the time Black became governor, Britain was seeking restrictions on cheap Asian textiles, most of them produced in Hong Kong.

Black's term in Hong Kong is also remembered for his efforts to improve the territory's cultural life, with the opening of the City Hall in 1962 as a centre of the performing arts. In 1958 he presided over the opening of the Kai Tak airport runway, the strip of concrete stretching out into the sea from a heavily built-up area that until its closure a year ago provided aircraft with one of the most spectacular approaches to any major city in the world.

Despite the refugee influx, Black was able to maintain relatively stable relations with the mainland. He successfully negotiated a deal with the government of Guangdong Province across the border for the provision of water, a commodity in desperate shortage in the colony. The deal held fast even during the height of the Cultural Revolution that broke out two years after Black handed over to Sir David Trench.

He was born Robert Brown Black in Edinburgh in 1906, and educated at Edinburgh University. Before Hong Kong and Singapore, his colonial service career had also taken him to Malaya, Trinidad and North Borneo. During the Second World War he was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps and served in the 43 Special Military Commission. He helped organise guerrilla resistance to the Japanese in Borneo. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942 and spent the rest of the war in internment.

Robert Brown Black, colonial administrator: born Edinburgh 3 June 1906; OBE 1949; Colonial Secretary, Hong Kong 1952-55, Governor 1958-64; CMG 1953, KCMG 1955, GCMG 1962; Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Singapore 1955-57; Chancellor, Hong Kong University 1958-64, Chinese University of Hong Kong 1963-64; married 1937 Anne Stevenson (died 1986; two daughters); died 29 October 1999.