Accessibility links

Breaking News

Anti-Corruption Drive Secret of Hong Kong's Prosperity

International business executives rank Hong Kong as one of least corrupt cities in the world. That reputation has become one of the secrets of its economic success. But some 40 years ago, the city suffered from endemic corruption.

Vendors in this Hong Kong wet market call out to shoppers to buy fresh fish, meat and vegetables. Business is brisk.

But some 40 years ago, gangs - known as triads - their police protectors and corrupt government officials terrorized markets like these, extorting money from hawkers in exchange for letting their stalls stay open.

Hong Kong people call it the "bad old days," when blatant bribery took place in nearly all aspects of life in the then-British colony - in getting driver's licenses, school placement, public housing and even medical help.

This woman has sold jade trinkets for more than 40 years.

"The triads harassed hawkers especially during the Chinese New Year when vendors want to have a better location for their stalls. So they have to pay a few dollars," she recalled.

Professor King Tsao, a corruption expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, witnessed blatant police corruption.

"I remember when I was a kid and I went to the wet market with my mom and I remember vividly there were some policemen - just passed by to patrol - and they collected cash, $10, from each hawker," he said. "They were not worried that someone would witness it, report it. They thought that was part of their life, part of their jobs to do everyday to collect money."

Yet the police department was supposed to investigate corruption and the public seemingly had no recourse. But that changed when mass protests erupted in 1973 after a police superintendent, then under a graft investigation, escaped from Hong Kong.

The British colonial government was forced to take radical steps, enacting strong anti-bribery laws, and creating an independent anti-corruption body, the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption).

Today, Hong Kong is a clean and prosperous city. Many here credit this success to the ICAC.

Armed with unprecedented police-like powers to investigate, arrest suspects and seize assets, the ICAC quickly broke up police protection rackets and pursued corrupt government officials.

By the late 1970s, the ICAC says reports of corruption dropped by more than half.

Rebecca Li, the assistant director for operations of the ICAC, explains the commission's strategy.

"The ICAC from the outset adopted a comprehensive strategy in combating corruption through the three-pronged approach - strict law enforcement, corruption prevention and community education," she said. "The government has been giving the ICAC sufficient resources to enable us to carry out our work effectively. We also have the necessary legal muscle in place."

She adds that public support has also been key in stamping out corruption.

"I think it's very clear that what made Hong Kong transform is the strong desire of the community to finally do something about the problem of corruption," she added. "Corruption is a highly secretive crime. Without the support and cooperation of the public in reporting corruption, then the ICAC wouldn't have been successful."

Initially, people were wary to report corruption to the ICAC but today, about three fourth of complaints are no longer anonymous.

The commission airs commercials like these regularly to keep public vigilance.

"And corruption won't vanish on its own. Report corruption to the ICAC and together we can build a fairer, better world."

Professor Tsao and other experts say Hong Kong's clean reputation has been one of the secrets of its economic success.

"Businessmen have the certainty to invest," he explained. "They know that their money will not go into the pockets of the government officials, just like some other Asian countries."

Tsao says other countries in the region facing endemic corruption could learn from Hong Kong. He, however, notes that having the legal muscle, government and public support are not enough. He says Hong Kong also improved vital social services such as public housing and free education - something so scarce in the 1960s that people had to resort to bribery to get them.

Despite the city's success, Hong Kong authorities forge on with their battle against corruption. A recent challenge comes from rising complaints of private sector corruption and transnational crime.

Still, many here say they remain confident in the ICAC.'s ability to crackdown on new sources of corruption and to safeguard Hong Kong's hard-earned economic success.