I’m quite prepared to believe in conspiracies. Hell, anyone who reads history would be a fool to ignore their importance. Think Pearl Harbor. Think Rudolph Hess (yes, Churchill et al knew there was a plane coming and yes, they were hoodwinking the Germans, the French and the Americans to save the Empire). Think Cuban Missile Crisis. Think Tonkin Gulf. Think Supersemar (OK, not many of you will know that one, but trust me: It was a set-up). Pretty much every significant event of the past century has a conspiracy in it somewhere that tarnishes the folk we thought were heroes. I’m quite prepared to believe some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, just because the law of averages must mean some of them are right. But what about the Weird Variable View of History?
Yesterday I pointed to Natalia Dmytruk and her subversive interpretation of the news on Ukrainian TV. As I was taking the tram past what was China’s defacto embassy in Hong Kong, the Xinhua News Agency (NCNA) building in Causeway Bay (now a hotel, the Cosmopolitan, for those of you who hadn’t heard), I was reminded of a tale going back 15 years which illustrates another Weird Variable. Here’s how Xinhua reported the event at the time (June 1990):
Foreign Ministry makes representations to British Embassy over Hong Kong shooting incident.
Beijing, June 8 (Xinhua) – The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made serious representations to the British Embassy in China over an incident in which a shot was fired at the new office building of the Hong Kong branch of the Xinhua News Agency early this month. The incident occurred at sometime between June 3 and 4 during a demonstration staged by the “Hong Kong alliance in support of the patriotic democratic movement in China”, which has held in the vicinity of the building. The demonstration had the approval of the Hong Kong British authorities. A hole about three to four inches in diameter was found in a window on the 11th floor of the building. After the incident, local police arrived and found a powerful bullet inside the building. The branch also made representations to the Hong Kong British authorities soon after the attack. The Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed deep regret over the incident in its representations to the British Embassy. The Ministry pointed out that the Hong Kong British authorities bear responsibility for the incident and demanded that they make a thorough investigation into the matter. The Hong Kong British authorities were also urged to take effective steps to ensure the safety of the personnel and property of Xinhua’s Hong Kong branch and other mainland agencies in Hong Kong. The Chinese government is closely following developments, the Foreign Ministry stated.
This was at a difficult time in British-China relations, with the handover seven years away, and tensions in the colony were high. The Chinese clearly thought the Brits were to blame, either through some sort of subtle provocation, or by not containing the Hong Kong Alliance, a constant thorn in the flesh of the Chinese. Demonstrations were a daily occurrence outside the Xinhua building, but this was an important occasion; the year before Tiananmen Square had galvanised Hong Kong like never before. I happened to be in the colony at the time and followed the march as it filled the streets and gathered outside the Xinhua building. The Chinese were nervous and clearly assumed the bullet was an attempt to provoke.
Here’s a story I wrote more than two years later (I’m claiming no credit here; I seem to recall the meat of the story was already published in local papers. I just tried to give it a bit of context):
Gun freak jailed for mystery bullet-hole.
HONG KONG, Sept 18, Reuter – Chan Yu-tat’s obsession with guns upset the neighbours, caused an international incident and baffled Hong Kong detectives. But now he’s in jail and one of the British colony’s odder mysteries is finally solved.
On June 3, 1990, Chan was test-firing his Dan Wesson pistol on the rooftop of his apartment block when one bullet went astray, whistling over half a mile (one km) before smashing through a window of the New China News Agency (NCNA). It was a bad time and a bad target. Outside the building, which serves as Beijing’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong, tens of thousands of demonstrators were marking the first anniversary of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests. When a cleaner discovered the bullet-hole the next morning, China, fearing political motives behind the incident, called it “very serious” and demanded an investigation.
Hong Kong obliged, launching harried detectives on a house-to-house search, ballistic experiments and fingerprint tests but drew a blank. Streets away one old man who had complained six months earlier of a bullet flying through his window on Christmas Eve while he was in bed with his wife was bemused to find the police suddenly taking an interest in his case. There were at least three claims of responsibility for the NCNA shooting, including one Chinese stowaway to Seattle who demanded political asylum on the strength of it. Chan, 26, a delivery man for a pharmaceutical firm who lived with his mother, read in the newspapers about the commotion his stray bullet had caused. But police only discovered the truth of the incident when he mailed some ammunition to a friend in Canada last year. Tipped off by their Canadian counterparts, police questioned Chan, who revealed a cache of firearms and admitted to the officers that he was behind the mystery bullet-holes. The High Court on Thursday jailed him for 7-1/2 years, the minimum sentence allowable under tough anti-gun laws introduced after a spate of armed robberies last year. “The Crown accepts that the fact the bullet happened to strike the building of the NCNA was an accident and not a political motive. It was purely by chance,” counsel Gary Alderdace told the court.
I don’t know what happened after that. I suspect the whole thing was forgotten. By then Chris Patten, Britain’s last governor, was in Hong Kong stirring things up. But I suspect — I have no proof of this — that single bullet nearly caused a serious rupture in the handover process.
Historians and conspiracy theorists ignore the Weird Variable at their peril.