“The Witchhunters: Scandal, Secrets and a Death that Shocked Hong Kong” by Simon J Blake and Nury Vittachi


The 1980 death of Hong Kong police officer John MacLennan shook the territory and made international news, eventually driving the Hong Kong courts to decriminalize homosexuality in 1991. There have been other books and even a stage production about MacLennan’s death and the scandal surrounding it, but in their new book, Simon J Blake (the pen name of a former Hong Kong police officer) and Nury Vittachi connect the fate of the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong to China.

The MacLennan case occurred during the Murray MacLehose administration, a time in which Hong Kong saw great changes. Governor MacLehose described Hong Kong as a territory, not a colony. He designated Cantonese as an official language of Hong Kong, along with English. And he changed the name of the Colonial Secretary—the second in command in the Hong Kong government—to the Chief Secretary. He was also instrumental in developing new towns in the rural New Territories: self-contained communities with schools, health clinics, housing, restaurants, markets, libraries, and auditoriums.


The Witchhunters: Scandal, Secrets and a Death that Shocked Hong Kong. Simon J Blake, Nury Vittachi (Penguin Australia, October 2019)
The Witchhunters: Scandal, Secrets and a Death that Shocked Hong Kong, Simon J Blake, Nury Vittachi (Penguin Australia, October 2019)

Waiting for the connection between MacLehose’s reforms and the MacLennan case requires some patience, but the authors’ supposition starts to come together when MacLehose becomes the first governor since Cecil Clementi in the 1920s to bring up the issue of 1997.


Clementi had come up with two proposals. First, the British could simply say that they had changed their minds and planned to keep the New Territories permanently, as they intended to keep Hong Kong and Kowloon permanently. Then they’d wait and see if China blinked. Second, the British could deliberately fall out with China over something or other, and then offer to resume friendly relations—with the Chinese ceding the New Territories permanently to Britain as part of the deal. The authorities in London liked neither proposal, and the problem was shelved and left to someone else to solve in the future.


MacLehose was faced with having to renew land leases that would extend beyond 1997; the issue could no longer be avoided.  Deng Xiaoping, meanwhile, had begun to pay more attention to Hong Kong, feeling that that it could partly become a model for China as it introduced capitalism. But in March 1979, Ma Hong, a director at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, traveled to Hong Kong to take a first-hand look. His report, which was circulated amongst the top leadership in Beijing, lauded Hong Kong’s economic policies, but the last section turned out to make the most impact:


Robbery, smuggling and rape are daily occurrences. In Hong Kong, holdups in broad daylight are common. The doors of the houses are tightly locked. Visitors must identify themselves before they are allowed in. One has to look about before entering a lift. A female government officer of the Hong Kong Government openly spells out rape prevention measures on television as well as remedial steps after such a trauma… Blue movies and pornography abound everywhere; nearly all movies are considered unsuitable for children.


If this was the type of city China was going to inherit, Deng wanted to make sure China had complete jurisdiction over Hong Kong after the Handover.

When Deng invited MacLehose to visit Beijing, it was the first time a Hong Kong governor had traveled to China on an official state visit since 1949. Hong Kong was in a better place than it had been in decades. The economy was thriving, housing standards had improved, and mandatory education had commenced. But as far as Deng was concerned, Ma Hong’s report told another story.

Deng promised MacLehose that Hong Kong would enjoy continued stability and that Deng was not opposed to capitalism but when MacLehose proposed that London administer Hong Kong after the Handover, Deng informed MacLehose that China would run Hong Kong and that there was nothing more to discuss.

To give Britain as much leverage as possible in future talks about Hong Kong, the authors surmise that MacLehose was determined to only present a clean image of the territory. It was imperative that China only see a thriving, efficient, and safe Hong Kong. But a year later, MacLennan was found dead with five gunshots through his chest and scandal rocked the territory. The authors infer that after the scandal China was more determined than ever to take control of Hong Kong after 1997. But without footnotes to sources, the conclusions can’t be verified.


During the MacLehose-Deng meeting in Beijing, the Governor admitted that the territory had some problems, but explained that he “remained convinced that Hong Kong could be more than just a rich, successful city of hard-working people.”

Deng was unmoved, but when their meeting came to an end, he got in the last word. “‘If you think Hong Kong is hard to govern, you should try China,’ Deng said with a smile.”

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.