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A Suspicious Death Changes Gay Hong Kong: Murder or Suicide? - Part 4

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Public Anger following the Inquest

There was an immediate public outcry with calls for an independent inquiry. On May 23 the recently appointed Attorney-General John Griffiths announced there was no need to reopen the inquest as the overwhelming body of evidence pointed to suicide. Griffiths himself had held two concerns prior to taking over the post of Attorney General less than a year earlier: homosexuality and the molestation of underage youths. He was determined to address both, but in his zeal tended to forget that there was a very marked difference between the two ‘crimes’. With new details of the MacLennan affair daily appearing in the media, he was well aware his own credibility was on the line.

On June 1 Inquest Jury Foreman Tony Pannell stated he was not satisfied with the Attorney General’s statement and itemized many points where the jury had disagreed with the evidence.

The RHKP attempted to reinforce their failed case. On June 4 they coerced four male prostitutes to claim that MacLennan had been one of their customers. Indeed so regular was he that – quite ridiculously given the ease with which payments could have been tracked, but no evidence found – they suggested he had been permitted to pay by cheque rather than cash!

On June 18 Elsie Elliott delivered a public bombshell. She revealed that as early as November 1979 the Attorney General had been made personally aware by his Crown Counsel, Howard Lindsay, of the plot against MacLennan - two months before his death. Her statement referred to the comments made to her by Inspector Michael Fulton (see above). On July 2 Fulton himself went public and confirmed he had been asked by members of the SIU to set up MacLennan. 

As public anger continued to mount, the Attorney General and Police Commissioner remained silent. On July 3, the Foreman of the Inquest Jury, Pannell, publicly called for the resignation of the Attorney General. Elsie Elliott repeated her call for a formal Inquiry into MacLennan’s death. The government again stated there would be no fresh Inquiry.

On July 7, Elsie Elliott compounded the government’s problems by announcing she was willing to help raise funds to sue both the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner. For as long as she lived, Ms. Elliot never fully accepted the suicide theory, insisting that McLennan’s death had been a case of murder, but adding that the pressure on him was so great that there was a slight possibility that he might have been “pushed to killing himself”.

Government establishes a Royal Commission of Inquiry

By this time public opinion, particularly in the large and influential Chinese media outlets, had become so great that the government had to reverse course. It agreed to establish a Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by a respected Supreme Court Justice (and later Chief Justice), T. L Yang. Evidence was heard from 110 witnesses including senior government and RHKP personnel and male prostitutes. This Inquiry was the most expensive in Hong Kong’s history. It came to the conclusion that MacLennan had indeed committed suicide. Yet again this verdict was ridiculed in public. It was eventually to become clear that some evidence had been deliberately withheld from the Inquiry and its work greatly hampered by severe restrictions to its terms of reference. 

One piece of information never reported to the Commission was the fact that MacLennan had a mistress. The lady was never publicly identified. Nor was it ever reported that on the night of his death she had lent him her Volkswagen which he had parked in the car park below his apartment block. Following his death the car was towed away by the police. Within hours, this lady was visited by two members of the police force and sternly warned not to talk to anyone in the media. Her story only came to light because she knew the broadcaster Aileen Bridgewater.

Government Considers Possibility of Changing Law on Homosexuality

Behind the scenes the government was clearly extremely concerned by the impact of the affair on the Chinese community. Prior to the announcement of the T. L. Yang Inquiry, on June 14 1980 it officially but quietly requested the Law Reform Commission to consider the following topic: “Should the present laws governing homosexual conduct in Hong Kong be changed and, if so, in what way?”

On July 5 the Commission appointed a high level Sub-committee “to research, consider and then advise it upon aspects of the said matter.” After three years of deliberation, the Sub-committee made a number of specific recommendations and provisos, the most important of which was: “We recommend that the law should not prohibit consensual sexual conduct in private between two males provided both are 21 or more years of age [8].”

One controversial recommendation was the proposal that the age of consent be 21 for males whereas it would remain at 16 for females.

Government Action following Publication of the Commission’s 1983 Report

Following publication of the Law Reform Commission Report, the government did precisely nothing! It was in the midst of extensive discussions with its masters in London regarding the future of Hong Kong after the expiration of the 99-year lease on the New Territories (by far the largest part of Hong Kong) on June 30 1997. Even after the December 19 1984 signing of the Joint Declaration between China and the United Kingdom on Hong Kong’s future, homosexual law reform remained on the back burner. It took several more years of pressure before the government finally realised it could procrastinate no longer. Before becoming a Special Administrative Region of China with many rights exclusive to Hong Kong citizens, Hong Kong would need to enact further legislation covering the international rights of its people.

Hong Kong Bill of Rights

The Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance (HKBORO) was enacted into law in June 1991. This empowered local courts to rule on cases regarding the violation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as applicable to Hong Kong, and to provide redress through HKBORO for cases where violation had been proved. As regards homosexuality, the government’s stated position up to this point had always been that Chinese society would not accept homosexual behaviour. This stood little scrutiny given a tradition of acceptance of such behaviour stretching back millennia and there being no law on mainland China banning homosexual behaviour. Although the former Governor Sir Murray MacLehose (see above) had believed the old British law should have been changed, this concern about public opinion was a primary reason for him, his successors and senior officials making no moves to effect any change. 

The requirement for a Bill of Rights brought the matter of homosexual law reform back into the discussion and inevitably the MacLennan case came again to the fore. The Bill finally enabled those proposing a change in accordance with the Law Reform Commission recommendations to make that change. The government decided not to challenge that view. The law against homosexual behaviour was immediately repealed.

Unequal Age of Consent 

As a result of a lawsuit later brought by human rights groups, Hong Kong’s Justice Michael Hartmann ruled in the Supreme Court in 2005 that the unequal age of consent was unconstitutional under the HKBORO. His decision was upheld in the Court of Final Appeal. From 2006 the age of consent for males was brought into line with those for females. Both became 16 years of age.

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