Policing the Pearl: Historical Transformations of Law Enforcement in Hong Kong

Mathieu Deflem
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Richard Featherstone
Yunqing Li
Suzanne Sutphin

This is a copy of an article in International Journal of Police Science and Management, 10(3):349-356, 2008.

Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu, Richard Featherstone, Yunqing Li, and Suzanne Sutphin. 2008. “Policing the Pearl: Historical Transformations of Law Enforcement in Hong Kong.” International Journal of Police Science and Management 10(3):349-356.


In this article we discuss historical patterns and dynamics of policing in Hong Kong since the formation of the first police force in the then British colony in 1844 until the handover to China in 1997 when a policy of ‘one country, two systems’ was implemented. We specifically focus on the changes that took place in the organisation of the police function and how these changes responded to shifting socio-structural conditions in political, economic and legal respects and, comparatively, to what extent institutional dynamics of Hong Kong police organisation and culture were responsible for dominant policing styles. We argue that the case of Hong Kong policing shows that internal developments of police culture and police management are, independently from broader societal developments, essential components to bring about changes towards the adoption of civilian police practices that enjoy both effectiveness and accountability.


The institutions and practices of policing in Hong Kong have traditionally not received much attention in the professional literature. More recent years, however, have witnessed an increase in relevant research, which is no doubt a function of the peculiar history of Hong Kong (Jiao, 2002, 2007; Lau, 2004a, 2004b; Lo & Cheuk, 2004). The case is of special interest, indeed, because of Hong Kong’s peculiar status and transition from a British crown colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Under these conditions of societal change, a critical examination can be undertaken of the impact of political, economic and legal developments on policing, on the one hand, and the influence of institutional traditions and police management practices, on the other. A historical inquiry of the Hong Kong police can, in this respect, offer important insights towards establishing effective police practices that abide by standards of accountability.

In this paper, we offer such an inquiry in view of theoretical questions concerning the dynamics of police behaviour as well as with respect to practical concerns of police management, especially in matters of police corruption. We begin our analysis by focusing on the organisation of policing in Hong Kong during the period of British rule. Subsequently, we will concentrate on the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, and discuss the importance of institutional dynamics relative to the changing societal context in the transformation of policing in Hong Kong.


The Hong Kong Police (hereafter HKP) has often been described as possessing a paramilitary structure oriented at maintaining public order and suppressing public disturbances, rather than being engaged in the civilian police functions of crime control. The origins of the paramilitary functions of the HKP are not surprising as the first police forces in Hong Kong were part and parcel of British colonialism. Yet, scholars disagree on how long the HKP has remained a paramilitary force. Three positions can be distinguished: (1) the paramilitary nature of the HKP faded away during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the force adopted a focus on crime control (Gaylord & Traver, 1995; Traver & Gaylord, 1991); (2) the agency’s strict centralised command and control approach continued until the 1997 handover to China (Lo & Cheuk, 2004); and (3) the paramilitary traditions have remained influential in the HKP to this day (Jiao, 2002; Jiao, Lau, & Lui, 2005; Lau, 2004a).

The paramilitary nature of the HKP is historically linked to the British control of Hong Kong after the First Opium War in 1842 (Gaylord & Traver, 1995; Jiao, 2007; Lau, 2004b; Vagg, 1994; see also the HKP official website at http:www.info.gov.hk/ police/). A police force was established in Hong Kong as early as 1844 with the primary function of securing law and order and suppressing protest against British rule. This initial stage of policing in Hong Kong Policing the Pearl: historical transformations of law enforcement in Hong Kong represented a makeshift enforcement of control, using a haphazard collection of misfits from the army. Because ethnic Chinese citizens were considered untrustworthy for the purposes of colonial enforcement, personnel were largely recruited from other British overseas territories.

As a result of low pay and a high number of dismissals and resignations of police officers, the turnover among constables was great and the police force unstable. The HKP was therefore reformed after the model of the Royal Irish Constabulary and recruits from India were enlisted. The new force was more efficient, but it also appeared to the indigenous Chinese as an occupying army and therefore enjoyed very little legitimacy. Maintaining public order for a long time remained the HKP’s primary focus, while crime control was of relatively little concern. The paramilitary policing style implied a confrontational approach oriented at enforcing obedience through coercive means. Police squads were organised as military units and trained to respond forcefully to community disorder. Police stations were constructed like military fortresses, which citizens feared to approach.

The ethnic make-up of the HKP was a matter of special concern. While some local inhabitants were recruited to serve on the police, especially as translators, they did not constitute the majority of constables until the late 1940s, when many Indian constables of the HKP chose to return to their home country which had been granted independence. Subsequently, local Chinese began to join the police and quickly made up about 75 per cent of the force. Yet, the majority of Hong Kong’s higher ranking officers remained foreigners. The first ethnic Chinese Commissioner of Police was not put in office until 1989. By 1990, 97 per cent of the Hong Kong police were ethnic Chinese, but as late as the mid 1990s, 60 per cent of the 500 top senior level officers were still expatriates. The separation between police and public that was created by the force’s ethnic composition was additionally reinforced by an undemocratic and tightly centralised control structure, whereby the police commissioner answered solely to the colonial governor and paid little attention to community residents.

The HKP remained a quasi-military arm of the colonial government for at least 100 years. Scholars differ, however, as to whether or when the force transformed into a professional organisation dedicated to crime control and concerned with serving the public. One position, held by Gaylord and Traver (1995; see also Traver & Gaylord, 1991), is that by the early 1960s the HKP transformed into a crime-fighting force because an increase in public policies and ordinances had became irritating to the economically prospering Hong Kong population. Because police officers were the enforcers of unpopular rules, a public relations problem developed. To combat the police’s image problem and to lessen criticisms from the public, the HKP administration established a press section to control the flow and character of crime news and police information. The overarching goal of this new section was to convince the public that it needed to be protected from crime and disorder and that the HKP could fulfil this role.

The Chinese Cultural Revolution created a serious crisis which put the HKP in a new and, ironically, opportunistic situation (Gaylord & Traver, 1995; Vagg, 1991, 1996). When the Communist Party of China Chairman Mao Zedong began to take action against some of his political opponents in China, the devastating internal fight within China that ensued also spread into Hong Kong. In the latter half of 1967, pro- Communist groups operating in Hong Kong attempted to destabilise the colonial government by creating violent disturbances throughout the community. Police Deflem et al. Page 351 were called on to suppress riots, diffuse bombs and raid suspected terrorist groups. The aims of the pro-Communist groups backfired as the community resented the disruptions, while the police, in turn, received much support from the community and could improve its public image. In 1969, the police was officially named the Royal Hong Kong Police, a designation that remained in force until the handover.

The HKP seized on its improved status by strengthening its public relations role and by launching a new anti-crime programme. In the early 1970s, a ‘Fight Violent Crime Campaign’ encouraged a partnership between the police and the community in combating personal and property offences. Thus, Gaylord and Traver (1995) maintain, the HKP began to undergo major transformations and moved away from its colonial past to become a more professional police force that was responsive to the community. This development, it is argued, continued during the 1980s, when a Public Information Bureau was set up to promote crime reports to the police from within neighbourhood communities and schools. Over hundreds of ‘Reporting Centres’ and ‘Neighbourhood Policing Units’ were opened to allow the public to report crimes to, or request information from, the police.

According to Lo and Cheuk (2004), however, the late 1960s and early 1970s only signalled the early beginnings of a process that later led the HKP to abandon its paramilitary model of policing. While the authors agree that the unrests of the late 1960s were critical in starting the demilitarisation process, they suggest that it took the HKP another three decades, until the transition of Hong Kong to China in 1997, before the practices of colonial policing were finally left behind. Lo and Cheuk’s (2004) reasons for suggesting such a late transformation of the HKP are specifically based on their analysis of Hong Kong’s evolving community policing strategy. Between 1968 and 1973, the HKP mainly used community policing practices to relax tensions with the public, without an actual interest in crime control tasks. Not until the transfer to China in 1997 would the HKP actually have begun to work with the community to deter crime and improve police services.


A third position on the paramilitary nature of the police in Hong Kong is defended by Raymond Lau and Allan Jiao (Jiao, 2002; Jiao, Lau, & Lui, 2005; Lau, 2004a, 2004b) and suggests that the HKP has not yet been able to move away from a paramilitary model, despite the fact that the handover to China has implied considerable political and legal changes. At the political level, the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 was formally agreed upon in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, which set up the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Man, 2006; Mushkat, 1997; Tai, 1994). Summarised under the heading of ‘one country, two systems,’ the Basic Law grants Hong Kong autonomy in matters of legislative, executive and judicial powers, with the exception of foreign affairs and defence for which the Chinese Government remains the sole authority. The Chinese Government is also authorised to intervene in any disturbance that might turn Hong Kong against the mainland, for which reason a People’s Army force is stationed within Hong Kong’s borders. Hong Kong also retains a separate common law system in which the power of final adjudication is exercised through a Court of Final Appeal. This provision is noteworthy in light of the fact that laws in Communist China are ordinarily interpreted by the legislature, not by the courts Policing the Pearl: historical transformations of law enforcement in Hong Kong Page 352 (which are allowed only to enforce the law).

Since 1997, the Hong Kong police has been formally renamed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Police Force. On an organisational level, personnel changes were among the more immediate consequences of the handover to China. As British expatriates abandoned their senior positions, the organisation of the HKP underwent rapid restructuring, and many local ethnic Chinese middle-level officers were promoted. To deal with the concern that a close link with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security might undermine the autonomy of the HKP, Chinese officials have given formal assurance through a socalled three ‘No’s’ programme: there would be no retaliation against police who had engaged in anti-communist work, no change in the working conditions of the police service, and no interference from the People’s Liberation Army in the policing of Hong Kong.

Police scholars Lau and Jiao argue against the notion that the paramilitary nature of the Hong Kong police has faded completely and maintain that it, instead, still provides an institutional impediment towards change. As evinced by the failure of recent efforts to institutionalise community policing in the socially and ethnically divided community of Hong Kong (Lau, 2004a), the HKP has made mostly superficial improvements in its organisation and practice. The function of law enforcement had in fact already begun to become a greater concern for the HKP in the early 1970s, when the colonial government began to address unfavourable opinion about the police among the public at large. In order to boost the legitimacy of the colonial government, then governor Murray Mac- Lehose initiated a proposal to create a professional police force with a primary focus on law enforcement. Lau (2004a) suggests that this effort was at least partly effective and that relations between police and public had improved. However, this relative improvement was primarily due to the government’s success at eliminating police corruption and not because of the HKP’s actual dedication to police–community relations. The HKP simply added crime control to its overall mission, while continuing to maintain public order by coercive means, in line with the long-standing paramilitary traditions.

Offering support for the institutional position is the finding that community policing and public relations practices have not received wide support among members of the HKP (Lau, 2004a, 2004b). Most Hong Kong officers are provided very little formal training in managing conflicts which they may have with citizens. Also, the typical HKP officer values Police Tactical Units that focus on public order concerns more than Neighbourhood Police Units designed to promote positive relations between the police and the public. The prevailing attitude among most Hong Kong officers that serving the public is not a core police value is reinforced by the HKP’s emphasis on more traditional and coercive police activities. For example, ‘hard tactics’ such as random sweeps of night clubs are routine procedures regularly carried out by the HKP.

According to Lau (2004b), the institutionalisation of the HKP’s paramilitary approach is the result of at least three factors. First, the historical experience has traditionally emphasised a separation between the police and the public. This orientation possesses its own inertia as indicated by a HKP officer’s contention that ‘police attitudes towards the public are very difficult to change’ (Lau, 2004b, p. 10). Second, police administrators encourage the continuation of paramilitary traditions. Operational protocol requires new recruits to go through a tour of duty with the Police Tactical Unit, which is highly militarised, Deflem et al. Page 353 emphasises riot control techniques and preaches the need for aggressive internal security. The HKP’s top management defends this unit and promotes its own flawed public opinion surveys to suggest that the public is highly satisfied with the police. Although external surveys, such as those conducted by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, indicate a very poor public impression of the HKP, the HKP administration sees little reason to change direction. A third reason for the continued relevance of the HKP’s paramilitary approach is that the public accepts the current situation because its presumed advantages to help Hong Kong maintain a stable and competitive economy. Essentially, the populace believes that the hard-line tactics of the HKP are necessary to protect it from potential disorder and criminal exploitation.

More in-depth research is surely needed on the transformation and current conditions of policing in Hong Kong to enable a firm stance to be taken in the discussions on the paramilitary functions of the HKP. It is noteworthy, however, that although police scholars differ on the impact of paramilitary policing styles and the relevance of external and institutional dynamics, they agree that the HKP experienced significant changes during the 1970s. These changes were brought about by an independent investigation that was launched against police corruption. It is instructive to our analysis that the response to the corruption problem, more than any other issue, prompted a revolution in how the HKP was to function. The crackdown on police corruption in the 1970s was the driving force for wider policing reforms, even if not all of its paramilitary traditions were abandoned. To understand the dynamics of these transformations, a closer look at the history of police corruption in Hong Kong is required.


In addition to using heavy-handed and military-style tactics, the HKP was historically steeped in corruption problems (Jiao, 2007; Vagg, 1991). Corruption among the HKP was primarily a result of the relatively widespread practice that Chinese magistrates and their representatives in the nineteenth century expected a certain amount of payoffs from their citizens. These cultural expectations passed over into Hong Kong society and there met with little opposition from the British rulers. Historically, also, Hong Kong police officers were poorly paid and therefore pursued supplementary income by protecting or operating illegal vice operations. Police corruption did not always escape official notice. In 1871, a quarter of the police force was dismissed for corruption, drunkenness, or incompetence. And in 1897, 76 members of the HKP, from the rank of inspector to constable, were dismissed or forced to resign due to corruption investigations (Vagg, 1991).

As both a legal and public relations problem, corruption continued to plague the HKP into the twentieth century. Various mechanisms were implemented to deal with the problem (Lau, 2004b; Vagg, 1991, 1996). In 1948, a Prevention of Bribery Ordinance was created, but to little avail. In 1952, an Anti-Corruption Branch was formed within the HKP, but it was largely ineffective. In 1960, a commission was established independent from the HKP to investigate and resolve the problem, yet it made little headway. Police corruption had become an accepted part of Hong Kong society.

It was not until the 1960s that more consequential action was taken against the growing menace of corruption among the HKP. A number of factors combined to make police corruption a problem simply Policing the Pearl: historical transformations of law enforcement in Hong Kong Page 354 too difficult to ignore. First, corruption among police officers became so widespread that victims of police extortion began to complain publicly about the situation. Second, citizens began to realise that the police were collaborating with the triads, threatening to delegitimise the entire criminal justice system. With public resentment mounting, the situation reached a boiling point in 1973 when a Chief Superintendent in the HKP, who was being investigated for corruption, avoided prosecution by using his police credentials to flee Hong Kong. In response, the governor of Hong Kong created an Independent Commission Against Corruption in February 1974. The commission was surprisingly effective in curbing the problem in a relatively short period of time.

It is important to our analysis in this paper that the results of the corruption investigation in the HKP went far beyond the punishment of corrupt police officers and also transformed the force more fundamentally. Although the HKP had already become more sensitive to public relations management following the 1967 suppression of pro-Communist riots, the corruption scandal brought about an even more resolute commitment to improve the image of the police. The governor and the police commissioner not only pushed for an investigation into the problem of corruption among the police, they then also launched a new community policing initiative. Thus, rather than being driven by certain crime problems, Hong Kong’s community policing programmes of the 1970s were largely a result of the HKP seeking to establish its position and reputation among the public in the wake of the corruption scandal.

Ironically, the anti-police corruption crackdown was also responsible for a subsequent increase in crime during the 1970s (Gaylord & Traver, 1995; Lau, 2004b; see also the HKP official website at http:// www.info.gov.hk/police/). The crime rate rose during this period, not so much because of an increase in criminal activity, but because the HKP was more engaged in the policing of criminality as a result of the increased focus on law enforcement and an accompanying decline in order maintenance tasks in the wake of the break-up of the alliance between police and triads. The HKP was now more professionally committed to adopting law enforcement skills to control both street-level and organised crime. Relatedly, the corruption scandal also pushed the HKP to change its command structure. While ethnic Chinese participation in the HKP had steadily increased since the late 1940s, most senior HKP administrators were, for a considerable period of time, not of Chinese origin. The gradual transformation in the ethnic makeup of the HKP gained momentum in the wake of the corruption scandal, when the police was criticised for being managed by foreigners. Hence, the corruption investigations of the early 1970s contributed to at least a partial demilitarisation of the HKP and its advancement towards becoming a professional crime-fighting force.


The case of the historical transformation of Hong Kong police is not only revealing in terms of the path of policing in a process of colonisation and decolonisation, it also has broader relevance regarding the relative weight of external pressures and institutional dynamics in the transformation of the police function and police organisation. Although police experts disagree on this matter, it is clear, at a minimum, that the paramilitary traditions that historically dominated the Hong Kong police constrained the institution’s move towards professionalisation. Evidence also suggests that whatever external pressures exist to bring about change towards professionalism, they need to be strong enough and sufficiently Deflem et al. Page 355 convincing to higher police administrators to overcome institutional obstacles effectively. In the case of the corruption crackdown in the Hong Kong Police during the 1960s and early 1970s, such momentous transformations were accomplished, specifically by launching community policing initiatives, an increased focus on crime control, and the promotion of ethnic Chinese officers to important administrative positions. What this analysis suggests is that important changes in policing styles cannot simply be expected to occur as a result of political, economic, or legal changes, but that police administrators need to work actively from within their institutions towards the creation of a responsive and responsible police organisation.

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