The British Empire Library

Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841 - 1880

by Christopher Munn

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor John M Carroll (Department of History, University of Hong Kong)
'Anglo-China' as the founders of colonial Hong Kong referred to the island ceded to Britain by China in 1842, was to be more than the 'Emporium of the East': it was to be a model of British government and a happy meeting of East and West. These two excellent studies, both written by former Hong Kong colonial servants, show how this encounter was not always pleasant or productive.

Although most historians have assumed that the early colonial government ruled its Chinese subjects with a light touch, Christopher Munn tells a radically different story. Unable to form reliable links with the nascent Chinese elite, the government exerted a 'considerable impact' on people's daily lives (p 3). Hong Kong had one of the largest police forces in the British Empire, a huge military presence, an elaborate system of monopolies and taxes, and oppressive curfews and registration programmes for controlling the Chinese population. Hong Kong's early criminal justice system was supposed to blend the best of the Chinese and English systems. In practice, argues Munn, the Chinese 'got the worst of both worlds' (p 159). Early magistrates were very poorly qualified or even unqualified. Instead, the government relied on so-called 'China experts' such as Chief Magistrate William Caine, who was often implicated in corruption and was notorious for his harsh punishments. With a criminal justice system that created new offences and punishments applicable only to them, the Chinese in Hong Kong 'lived under a constantly changing, labyrinthine system of intrusive regulatory laws and policing practices, which increasingly criminalized many daily activities and brought thousands of people into direct contact with the police and the courts' (pp 3-4). Racial bias and problems with evidence created a system of justice that contradicted official views of British impartial justice and not only failed to prevent crime but even drove away wealthy Chinese merchants.

Colonial officials' frequent declarations to the contrary, the administration of justice was not impartial. Courts often presumed that Chinese defendants were guilty, and judges such as John Walter Hulme were known for being especially tough on non- European defendants. Unfamiliar with British law, Chinese were less able to appeal unfavourable verdicts and were often convicted for very minor offences. Because many Europeans believed that Chinese were undeterred by 'soft' British justice, Chinese were usually punished more severely than Europeans. Punishments such as caning and wearing the cangue (a Chinese portable pillory borne on the shoulders by petty offenders) were applied only to Chinese. Particularly vigorous in trying to control the Chinese population was Governor Richard MacDonnell, who expanded the power of the police, strengthened curfews, and increased the use of flogging, hanging, and deportation. Even the so-called 'pro-Chinese' Governor John Hennessy, who tried to bring more Chinese (to whom he referred as 'our Anglo-Chinese subjects' or as 'Her Majesty's loyal and law-abiding Chinese subjects') into the colonial elite, used a broad definition of crime and high rates of prosecution to control the Chinese population.

This book when combined with The Six Day War of 1899 should appeal to anyone interested in the history of Hong Kong, the British Empire, and colonialism in general. Grounded firmly in Hong Kong's unique geographical and cultural context, they address larger questions about the administration of justice, anti-colonial resistance, and state-society relations.

British Empire Book
Christopher Munn
Hong Kong University Press
978 962 209 951 7


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