Kevin Sinclair's Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

A veteran SCMP reporter, Kevin examines the good, bad and ugly sides of life in the city. E-mail him at

We let them all off, it just had to be

We were faced with a full blown police mutiny

I put all my faith in the ICAC

But we still had to give them their

damned amnesty.

I've got the Governor's blues

I'm sick of the whole bloody thing

Ordered around by a bunch of young cops

I'm just waiting for Peking to ring

(The Governor's Blues,

0 copyright Graham Earnshaw 1978)

This song with a blues tune was hummed in the aftermath of a crisis unique in our turbulent history. In a clash of wills between angry members of the Royal Hong Kong Police and a determined governor, a nervous city watched as thousands of uniformed officers marched in public protest. There were deep concerns that while the police and government argued, law and order would break down. That never happened but the raw confrontation of power gave Hong Kong a collective heart attack.

We threatened the bribery on which crime depends

They thought that we'd cut off the stream of crisp tens

That flows from the brothels and opium dens

Oh I wish I was back in those old Scottish glens.

It was once one November, the day I remember

They held me to ransom that day.

They said we have the guns and the police stations

And it's us or hello PLA.

In October 1977 police were angry. For three years, the force had been battered. They had lost face and seen their formerly admired status dragged to disgrace. Morale was in the gutter. The Independent Commission Against Corruption had relentlessly targeted police for graft practices which in the past had been openly tolerated. Now came word that a new series of arrests was planned.

No more, police decided. The sins of the past should not be dredged up years later. They wanted a line drawn, putting the past and its customary practices behind them. In future, all corruption charges should be pursued with vigour, the police agreed. But let past sins be forgiven. Amnesty demands were rejected by the governor, Sir Murray MacLehose, acting on advice from ICAC head Jack Cater. Both felt it intolerable for corrupt police to escape punishment and continue in their posts.

We'll see about that, murmured key officers, Chinese and expatriates. Long-serving constables, sergeants and officers at police headquarters were sympathizers. Half the entire force signed a petition. On November 26, 4,000 police gathered at their sports club in Boundary Street, Mong Kok, and voted with a roar to march the next day on Police Headquarters.

As 6,000 police marched to Arsenal Yard the next morning, they passed governor MacLehose getting out of his limousine. His face was grey and tense.

The irate police never got to see commissioner Brian Slevin; he slipped out a rear entrance of the compound known forever after as 'Traitor's Gate'.

In the sole incidence of violence, a mob of angry police on November 28 stormed the ICAC operations department, roughing up a couple of ICAC men.

There were urgent meetings at Government House between the governor, police commissioner and ICAC chief. The military were consulted. Exco debated. On November 5, all Hong Kong gathered around their TV sets to listen to Sir Murray make an announcement. He granted a wide amnesty for corruption offences of the past. This brought immediate settlement of the dispute.

It also started to end the rancour between police and the ICAC. Coppers felt they were singled out for persecution while other branches of government and business were ignored. For generations corruption in the force had been run by the mighty staff sergeants. Networks collected the loot, divided it up and delivered it in discrete brown envelopes. Some of this flood of money helped combat crime. Most ended up in private pockets. MacLehose and Cater, rightly, were determined to end this syndicated graft.

Today, the two law enforcement agencies work together closely and harmoniously. Within the police there's zero tolerance for corruption. So maybe the police rising was worthwhile.

In Government House as I called for the waiter

I turned to my old trusted colleague Jack Cater

I asked him if this mess could ever be greater

He said well Sir Murray, just wait until later.

I've got the Governor's blues

I'm sick of the whole bloody thing

Ordered around by a bunch of young cops

I'm just waiting for Peking to ring.