Wednesday, January 11, 2006

May Day: Corruption and the Assassin's Bullet

As I have spoken of a number of times, Hong Kong's police force in the 19th century was riddled with corruption. One of the major problems was inadequate pay for police, with the result that only the dregs of colonial society, and far from the best candidates amongst the Chinese or Indians, could be recruited. An early police superintendent, Charles May, had to be reprimanded by Governor Bowring to give up his interest in several high-class brothels in the territory.

A later police chief, though, was of a different mould. Sir Francis Henry May (no relation, pictured here) was originally in the cadet service, and was thoroughly trained in Cantonese language instruction, and had his sights set on achieving higher things. That he did later in his career, becoming the Colonial Secretary of Hong Kong and then ultimately the Governor of the Colony. He managed this by being a relatively clean police officer, something that was relatively hard to manage in his day. Allow me to quote Crisswell and Watson in their history of the Hong Kong police:
On June 21st 1897 May personally led a raid on the headquarters of the syndicate in East Street. To his dismay, documents were discovered which revealed that a large number of police officers, Europeans as well as Chinese, had been receiving bribes for a considerable time. May, a strict disciplinarian, did not shrink from his duty and as a result of subsequent investigations, criminal proceedings were taken against one police officer, forty-nine were dismissed and a number of others were required to resign...

As a direct consequence of the gambling scandal a draft ordinance 'for the more effectual punishment of bribery and certain other misdemeanors' was passed by the Legislative Council February 1898. This ordinance created the offences of accepting and offering bribes with a view to influencing the conduct of a public servant, for which the penalty was up to two years' imprisonment or a fine not exceeding $500 or both...

Some felt that May's attempt to excise corruption in the force had shattered morale and had left the patient in a worse state of health than before the operation, a sentiment echoed in the 1970s after the setting up of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Others harboured resentment at his disregard of Oriental ideas of 'face' and in one case, a long-nurtured sense of grievance had near fatal consequences for May. [A man tried to assassinate him on his official reception from Blake Pier to Government House upon taking on the post of Governor in 1912].

May's would-be assassin as he proceeded to Government House from Blake Pier in 1912 was the son of a Chinese constable dismissed during the gambling scandal fifteen years earlier and it was generally assumed that his motive was a dsesire to avenge the injury done to his father's reputation, although the man himself denied this. He was tried and given a life sentence.
I found it interesting that the authors brought up the corruption scandals of the 1970s, including the infamous Godber case, when they were writing a monograph that was paid for by the police in I believe 1983. The book only covered 1841-1945, though, and while there was always the possibility of a sequel, they were never commissioned by the police to write a second book. One need not wonder why!

It goes to show though, in this and other blog entries I have created, that the police in Hong Kong play a role that goes beyond simple law and order. During the colonial era, they were enforcers of the legitimacy of the colonial regime, seen time and again from the anti-French protests in 1884, the Chinese demonstrations in 1925, and the riots in 1956, 1966 and 1967. In that sense, then, the police were something of the praetorian guard for the Governor and the colonial establishment. Little wonder then, that when they found themselves threatened by those they were protecting, they hit back, as they did in the 1970s. When threatened with May-style complete housecleaning by the ICAC, they brought their protests to so high a level that basically all police were given clemency for past misdeeds and a complete amnesty for those not already convicted. And as the assassination attempt on May demonstrates, those that risk running afoul of the law enforcers take their lives in their hands...

1 comment:

Dave and Stefan said...

Thanks Citygirl! I will have to chase down that dissertation. Sounds rather interesting...the police force certainly closed ranks by the 1970s, agreeing amongst themselves both to keep down the level of corruption and to stop the ICAC from prosecuting any more of its officers.

That corruption still does exist today is still tangible, at least to me. Why else would there be brothels within sight of the front steps of the Mong Kok or Yau Ma Tei police stations?