Fighting Corruption

For many years China's top leaders have understood that the problem of corruption in the country is very serious and needs to be tackled.

Senior figures in the Government and the Party have spoken out publically on the need to take action. They realise that failure to act undermines public support for the administration by whittling away its moral authority.

From time to time, efforts have been launched to address the situation. The Communist Party's discipline section has been particularly active, most spectacularly in the recent case of former Chongqing Mayor Bo Xi Lai.

But still there is a perception among the public at large that these efforts, while welcome, have only scratched at the surface and that there is a boiling cauldron of graft out of view which is not being dealt with adequately.

Fortunately for Beijing, there is one corner of China that within living memory had a problem every bit as serious as that now afflicting the mainland, but which has succeeded in turning the situation around and now enjoys high standards of integrity in public life.

That place is our very own Hong Kong. China can draw lessons from the city's experience to improve its own situation.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the then British-administered city suffered rampant corruption in the public service and in the private sector.

The situation in the police force was particularly squalid, as one unit within it was charged with investigating corruption, but was itself allegedly the dirtiest corner of all.

Public works contracts routinely included an extra margin to allow for payoffs to supervisory staff. Juniors received the equivalent of their monthly salary in illicit payments while seniors received a percentage of the total contract sum. Almost every area of public life where ordinary citizens came into contact with officials wielding power was infected by the blight of the open palm expecting to be greased.

Finally the administration was driven to act and then Governor Murray MacLehose announced in his 1973 Policy Address that he would create an Independent Commission to lead the fight against corruption. Hence the ICAC was formed in February 1974.

Right from the outset the new body operated on three separate fronts. First was the Operations arm, carrying out investigations, arresting suspects and prosecuting those against whom considerable evidence could be produced. Naturally these efforts attracted considerable publicity.

The other two arms of the ICAC carried out work that was no less vital, but did not attract the same degree of attention.

One was the Corruption Prevention Department which examined policies and procedures in those areas most prone to graft in order to make sure opportunities for criminal activity were minimised.

The other was the Community Relations Department which carried out a long term public education programme to encourage ordinary citizens to resist corrupt approaches, to report corruption and be prepared to testify in court, and generally to support the Commission's work.

Taken together these efforts were extremely successful. Just three years after the organisation's formation, a section of the police force mutinied while another group actually attacked the ICAC headquarters.

In order to maintain social order, the Government granted an amnesty to wipe the slate clean of all but the most heinous cases and allow everyone to turn over a new leaf.

In clearing up a situation where corruption is rampant, there is general recognition that at some point an amnesty will have to be granted but there is much debate over the appropriate timing. Too soon, and there is a danger corrupt officials will just keep their heads low and hope the new campaign will blow over. Hong Kong got the timing about right: so many police had gone to jail, or were under investigation, that the remainder realised the situation had fundamentally changed.

By the time the amnesty was offered the ICAC had so much credibility, most took the opportunity to go straight and put past bad behaviour behind them.

Getting the organisational structure right was important. Appointing officials of unblemished reputation to head it was vital. Not giving an amnesty until the new organisation had made its mark helped.

But there were two other factors that enabled Hong Kong to be successful in its fight against corruption.

One was the overwhelming support of the vast majority of ordinary citizens. They were absolutely fed up with the brazen misbehaviour going on in their midst, and threw their weight behind the efforts of the top civil leadership.

The other key factor was the existence of a vibrant free press. News stories about corruption, including photographs of police in uniform collecting bribes in public, had helped generate the political will to establish the ICAC in the first place.

Now by continuing to keep up the pressure and point a spotlight on suspicious circumstances, the media could help maintain the newly honest regime. The massive publicity given to successful prosecutions also played its part.

If the authorities in the mainland have the will to put all these components in place: creating a powerful organisation reporting directly to the top; harnessing the fury of the masses; allowing an unrestrained press to act as a backstop – then China too can share the success Hong Kong has achieved.