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Hong Kong: A corrupt police force haunted by its criminal record

Corruption has once more raised its ugly head within the Hong Kong police. The authorities have moved quickly to try to deal with it, but Stephen Vines in Hong Kong sees worrying signs for the future.

The Hong Kong government is worried. It issued a statement this week saying it was determined to maintain the police force "as one of the finest, upholding law and order, with integrity, honesty and professionalism".

The statement came as a response to "views expressed by various people concerning a number of incidents". Top of the list are the embarrassing circumstances under which the police have been forced to freeze all promotions following the arrest of eight officers on corruption charges connected with promotion boards.

These arrests have sent shock waves through both the police force and the public who fear that the rampant corruption which made the police notorious during the Seventies is re-emerging.

Few details have been given about the arrests by Hong Kong's powerful Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), but it has been confirmed that officers, including two chief inspectors, are suspected of bribery offences in connection with promotions to the rank of sergeant. Decisions over the promotion of more than 1,000 officers have been frozen while investigations are in progress.

The ICAC appears to be making a clear statement that despite the change of sovereignty it is still in business.

Hong Kong has an unusually large police force, with 438 policemen for every 100,000 members of the public, one of the highest ratios in the world.

The high level of policing is given as one reason for low levels of crime, but it was not so long ago that a great deal of crime was generated by the police force itself. Desk sergeants in local police stations became millionaires as they controlled the distribution of bribes and allocation of protection rackets.

The force was so riddled with corruption that post-war colonial governments avoided confronting the issue, fearing it would lead to the total breakdown of law and order. So powerful were corrupt policemen in the Sixties that they succeeded in getting a committee of inquiry to lay the blame for a series of riots on the territory's few prominent anti-police corruption campaigners.

However, public unease about the police was growing and the government was forced to respond. Investigations into the corruption of very senior officers revealed that they had ferreted away millions of dollars. The most notorious culprit was a Briton, former senior superintendent Peter Godber. Even after his arrest he managed to board a plane for Singapore and return to Britain. The public was outraged and campaigned for his return to face trial.

The Godber case broke the floodgates of public frustration with police corruption, which stretched down to the smallest stall holder having to pay off local constables to remain in business. Sir Murray MacLehose, who was then governor, decided that confidence could only be restored by the establishment of the ICAC. When it came into being in 1974 it was overwhelmed with inquiries into police corruption. A way was found to bring Godber back from London and he was extradited on charges of accepting a bribe for the promotion of a police officer.

Godber's conviction opened the door for aggressive prosecutions of police officers by the ICAC. Many corrupt sergeants fled to Taiwan, where there was no extradition treaty. The arrest of police officers peaked in 1977, provoking the nearest Hong Kong has come to a police revolt, when the ICAC headquarters was besieged by angry members of the force demanding the release of their colleagues.

A dangerous stand-off developed. The government offered a partial amnesty to get the police back to work. It virtually let off all officers suspected of more minor crimes committed before the beginning of the year. The controversial amnesty was only partially mitigated by a change to the police law giving the Commissioner of Police summary dismissal powers.

The experience of the Seventies is embedded in Hong Kong's folk memory. Countless surveys have shown that one of the biggest worries about last July's transfer of power was that it would lead to an upsurge of corruption, especially among the police, who have secured a far better reputation in recent years. A survey conducted by the ICAC, a year before the handover, found three-quarters of those questioned believed the commission's role "would become more important as 1997 drew near". Just before the handover, the ICAC recorded a disturbing increase in reports of corruption in public bodies and government departments but not in the police.

The public is worried that the bad old days might be coming back, although astonishingly, the new government has responded to this concern by suggesting that the main watchdog, the ICAC, should be shorn of the word "Independent" in its English title.