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Hong Kong sees sharp fall in corruption reports

Publication Date : 20-12-2013


Hong Kong has become cleaner - it seems. The number of corruption reports made to its anti-graft watchdog this year looks set to fall to a two-decade low, due possibly to "heightened awareness of the public against corruption".

The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) received 2,451 complaints from the public, informants and whistle-blowers as at end-November, it told The Straits Times.

This is a sharp drop from the 3,731 complaints lodged last year, and marks a low since 1992 when 2,257 were made.

In particular, the number of complaints involving building management dropped "significantly" - by 39 per cent - following intensive campaigns in recent years, the agency said in an e-mail reply to queries. Malfeasance in this industry was the largest source of complaints about the private sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all complaints.

But the upbeat picture has been muddied by speculation that the drop in complaints was due to a decline in Hong Kongers' confidence in the ICAC, deterring people from lodging reports.

The last time it saw a similar drop was in 1978, after it granted partial amnesty to policemen whose offences were committed before 1977, notes Stephen Char, an ICAC chief investigator turned barrister. "People thought the ICAC was letting the police off too easily, and didn't want to work with us," he said.

Some media reports suggest that the current decline is the result of a probe into former ICAC commissioner Timothy Tong for overspending on wining and dining on the public account.

Refuting this, the ICAC said initial findings of its annual opinion survey, now being analysed, show that an even higher percentage of respondents, compared to last year's 79.2 per cent, are willing to report corruption. A vast majority expressed support for it. "From our regular close contact with various strata of the society in the past year, we understand that the general public continued to support the ICAC."

Corruption experts such as academic Sunny Lo concur, saying he believes the decline in complaints shows Hong Kong is "entering a period of consolidation".

"After so many years of active community outreach by the ICAC, the people have developed a sense of how corruption is not tolerated, and a certain level of ethical standards," says Lo.

Others, however, warn that it is too early to discern a trend. "We need to wait and see, if the numbers return next year and if it's an aberration," says legislator Ronny Tong, a lawyer.

The discussion caps a tumultuous year for the ICAC. This comes two months before it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Established in February 1974, the ICAC was instrumental in cleaning up a then corruption-ridden society including through education efforts. Each year, it reaches out to 600,000 people via talks, activities and projects.

This year, Hong Kong ranked 15 among 177 societies in the Corruption Perceptions index by the Transparency International.

Asked about new challenges and strategies, the ICAC cites stepping up corruption prevention work in industries such as building renovations, financial services and Chinese medicine practices. It will also "put emphasis" on drawing up guides for sectors where large sums of public monies are involved - for instance, welfare and construction.

Experts say an important area is "more strategic and targeted outreach" to mainland migrants and firms based in Hong Kong, as both societies and economies become more enmeshed. "The mainland's social ethics are quite different from those in Hong Kong," says Prof Lo, adding state-owned firms have been involved in suspected bribery cases in the city.

Another challenge is Hong Kong firms engaging in corrupt practices across the border, beyond the agency's jurisdiction. The worry is that practices like bribery, seen as necessary on the mainland, may infiltrate Hong Kong, said Char.

Another headache is the use of ICAC as a political tool in Hong Kong's polarised environment. It is increasingly common, said ICAC commissioner Simon Peh early this year, for complainants to publicise corruption charges aimed at politicians, before it could investigate, giving them time to destroy evidence. "What I don't know is how sincere they are in making the complaint."


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