The Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) entered its 36th anniversary this February. After years of relentless efforts from the Government, graft fighters and the community, Hong Kong today enjoys worldwide acclaim as one of the most corruption-free places, with a sound anti-corruption system and a culture of probity entrenched in the community.
Before the inception of the ICAC in 1974, the responsibility of fighting corruption lay with the police. The post-war population boom, coupled with the influx of immigrants, put an unprecedented strain on public resources. Corruption was then rampant in the community as a rather common way to help speed things up. The escape of a senior expatriate police officer while under investigation for corruption fuelled widespread discontent and triggered a public outcry with citizens calling for an overhaul of the anti-corruption regime. Following an inquiry by a senior judge, the Hong Kong government decided to set up a dedicated anti-graft agency independent of the civil service and directly reporting to the then Governor.
After Hong Kong’s reunification with mainland China in 1997, ICAC’s independent status is guaranteed by the Basic Law – a constitutional document for the establishment of the HKSAR. The ICAC Commissioner is now directly accountable to the chief executive of the HKSAR Government.
International organisations continue to rate Hong Kong as one of the least corrupt places in the world. In 2009, the Berlin-based Transparency International ranked Hong Kong as the world’s 12th cleanest, in a tie with Luxembourg and ahead of a number of advanced economies, among the 180 countries and regions polled. The report also commended the Hong Kong Government and the ICAC for their intensified efforts to prevent corruption in the midst of the global financial crisis. The Heritage Foundation continued to rate Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy for the 16th straight year in its 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, noting that corruption is perceived as minimal in the city.
ICAC’s strategy & operation
Today corruption is well under control in Hong Kong. In recent years, corruption reports average about 3,000 annually. Well over 70 per cent of these reports were non-anonymous and hence traceable, showing the public’s strong confidence in the ICAC. In 2009, 63 per cent of corruption reports related to the private sector whereas government departments and public bodies took up 31 per cent and 6 per cent respectively. Fully recognising the need to tackle corruption in its totality, ICAC continues to fight graft through its holistic strategy of law enforcement, prevention and education.
The Operations Department is the investigative arm and the largest department of the ICAC, striving to investigate any corruption related offences in both the public and the private sectors as well as illicit and corrupt practices in public elections. The department has established partnership with government departments including the police force and regulatory bodies in combating corruption. Specialist units on computer forensics and financial investigations have been set up to further enhance its capabilities in dealing with increasingly complex graft cases and financial crimes facilitated by corruption. It also makes use of information technology, undercover operations and intelligence to detect unreported corruption crimes.
The Corruption Prevention Department has the statutory responsibility to reduce corruption opportunities in government departments and public bodies. It examines the practices and procedures of public sector organisations to identify corruption loopholes and recommend preventive measures in a wide range of areas such as purchasing and tendering, contract management, law enforcement, licensing and regulatory systems as well as administration of government funds. The department also provides prompt consultation service to propose preventive measures for new procedures, policies or major development projects being planned. Free and confidential corruption prevention advice is available for private sector organisations on request. The department has produced best practice modules for various trades including listed companies, the insurance industry, the catering trade and small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Community Relations Department educates the public against the evils of corruption and enlists their support in the fight against corruption. It organises community activities to put across the probity message, implements integrity programmes tailor-made for different trades and industries, produces teaching packages for schools and develops modules for university students and professionals. To maximise the educational effect, the department also makes use of the mass media and the internet to reach out to the public. A highly popular TV drama series adapted from completed ICAC corruption cases is produced every two to three years for public broadcast. Updates on anti-corruption initiatives are regularly posted on ICAC’s websites.
The ICAC operates under a system of checks and balances in discharging its anti-corruption duties. Apart from judicial supervision, the Commission’s work is scrutinised by four independent committees comprising professionals, legislators and prominent citizens. An independent ICAC Complaints Committee, chaired by a former member of the Executive Council, monitors the handling of non-criminal complaints lodged against the ICAC and its officers.
Factors of success
In the past few decades, Hong Kong has evolved from one of the most corrupt to one of the cleanest cities in the world. A number of factors are considered to be at work: strong anti-corruption laws, an independent and impartial agency fighting graft through its three-pronged strategy of law enforcement, corruption prevention and community education and an independent judiciary. A team of professional and dedicated graft busters supported by the community and the government’s firm commitment are also crucial to the success of anti-corruption work in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong today takes pride in its clean civil service and a level playing field for businesses. But there is no room for complacency. The ICAC remains vigilant and is always prepared for the challenges ahead.
Whilst there is no sign of syndicated corruption reviving in the civil service, we continue to keep under close watch individual cases involving corrupt misconduct and abuse of office by public servants. To help maintain a fair and vibrant business environment, the ICAC continues to step up efforts to help listed companies, small and medium sized enterprises and key industries such as insurance, financial services, tourism and catering enhance governance and internal controls.
With closer social and economic ties between Hong Kong and mainland China, cooperation and liaison with the mainland counterparts continue to grow on the investigation, prevention and education fronts. Under the Mutual Case Assistance Scheme, the ICAC and its mainland counterparts interview witnesses in each other’s jurisdiction for corruption investigations on a voluntary basis. On the preventive side, the ICAC have joined hands with the mainland and Macao anti-corruption authorities to organise corruption prevention seminars and produce guidebooks to acquaint cross-boundary businessmen with anti-corruption laws and regulations in various jurisdictions.
To tackle the increasingly sophisticated and transnational corruption crimes, the Commission spares no effort in enhancing its operational effectiveness, strengthening its professional capabilities and fostering international cooperation.
The ICAC maintains regular liaison with overseas law enforcement agencies and continues to establish and expand its global links in this regard. International exchanges through various platforms continued, with senior anti-corruption officials actively participating in major international conferences. Last year, with OLAF as the co-host, the ICAC organized its fourth international symposium on corruption and economic crimes, attended by over 300 law enforcers, business leaders, academics and representatives from 39 jurisdictions and international organisations.
In April 2009, the ICAC set up Hong Kong’s first Centre of Anti-Corruption Studies to facilitate research on anti-corruption issues and to provide academics, experts and researchers from around the world with a platform to exchange information, views and ideas in this regard.
The United Nations Convention against Corruption, which promotes and supports international cooperation and technical assistance in preventing and curbing corruption, has been extended to Hong Kong following China’s ratification of the treaty. The ICAC is designated as the agency authorised in mainland China to provide assistance to other state parties.
To meet the challenges of the new century, the ICAC will remain committed to the vigorous fight against corruption on the domestic front as well as in the international arena.