As 1997 gets nearer, Hong Kong gets naughty Officers caught on film baring up to pressure

January 02, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HONG KONG -- When police broke up a pornography ring here recently, their haul included pictures that shocked the most hardened officers. There, strutting their stuff, were 40 of Hong Kong's finest, some wearing holsters and pistols, others swinging truncheons, and none wearing a stitch of clothing.

As this British colony heads toward 1997 and the restoration of Chinese rule, life is inexorably changing. Crime is on the rise, along with corruption; morale among public servants is declining. The reasons, as in any society, are complex, but the approach of 1997 is clearly having its effect.

"What we're seeing is the re-emergence of corruption in the government area," said James E. Buckle, head of operations for an undercover investigation agency called the Independent Committee Against Corruption.

"We've suddenly seen a change in the police area, including instances of organized crime in the force."

The policemen implicated in the pornography scandal were paid for posing and thought that the photos were only for the amusement of the photographers' girlfriends.

Their superiors assert that this lapse was an aberration and represented only a tiny percentage of the force of 33,000.

Anti-graft investigators tell another story. They see the scandal as part of a slow breakdown in morale among public servants, which has led to levels of police corruption not seen in 20 years.

The increase in crime and corruption is causing some to worry that the British colony -- long a haven for businesses trying to escape China's endemic corruption -- may start resembling its future master.

Although China has pledged to give Hong Kong autonomy in running its affairs, not everyone is convinced of this. Nor are they convinced that the city-state will be able to remain prosperous and stable.

Hong Kong's legal system, for example, may be weakened under Chinese rule. China has recently said it will scrap Hong Kong's bill of rights, raising doubts about whether the territory will still be able to enjoy the rule of law.

"The decline in morale among police officers and civil servants shouldn't be surprising because people are nervous," said Emily Lau, a popular Hong Kong legislator. "If the laws are seen as weak, criminals will challenge them."

This challenge has led to a higher crime rate. Hong Kong is safer than many U.S. cities: With 6 million residents, it had 96 murders last year compared with 321 murders among Baltimore's 739,000 residents.

But the overall crime rate rose 13.6 percent in 1994 and a further 7.7 percent during the first nine months of 1995.

Criminologists point out that the jump was fueled by huge increases in the relatively small crime areas of petty theft and pickpockets, which some analysts link to rising unemployment, drugs and teen-age affluence. Although contributing to a general sense of unease about law and order, rising crime is not out of hand and probably can be countered by traditional crime-fighting methods, they say.

For Hong Kong's long-term survival, however, the more worrying trend is the re-emergence of government corruption.

Hong Kong used to be notorious for its corruption until the Independent Committee Against Corruption was set up in 1974 by detectives imported from Great Britain.

Along with a staff of local investigators, they succeeded in smashing corruption and Hong Kong earned a reputation as a safe and fair place to do business, an especially welcome haven for companies seeking a safe base from which to penetrate into China's often-chaotic hinterland.

Now, however, hardly a week goes by without a report of scandal rocking the police force, or of how public servants have become demoralized as they face control by China's often capricious and politicized rulers.

Inspector tipped off brothels

The nude photos of police made one of the most notorious cases, but equally shocking for Hong Kong police was the case of Lai Kin-keung, a 37-year-old senior inspector found guilty of accepting $90,000 in bribes for sabotaging a crackdown on brothels. Working in a ring with 20 other officers, he tipped off brothel owners moments before raids.

Lai was seen as one of the force's best young officers and had been groomed for senior leadership. His decision to risk this for a relatively meager payoff is part of what the ICAC's Mr. Buckle sees as the growth of a take-it-while-you-can mentality in the face of an uncertain future with China.

In a case earlier this year, five customs officers were among 13 people arrested for helping to smuggle 20 luxury cars to China. The cars were taken from showrooms with the dealers' knowledge, then hustled across the border to eager buyers in China's wealthy southern coastal cities.

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