Mainland can learn from ICAC's success

Updated: 2013-02-23 07:13

By Mike Rowse (HK Edition)

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Mainland can learn from ICAC's success

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 publicly on the need to take action. They realize that failure to act undermines public support for the government by whittling away its moral authority.

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

But still there is a perception among the public at large that these efforts, while welcome, have only scratched at the surface and there is a boiling cauldron of graft out of view that 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. The mainland 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.

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 Independent Commission Against Corruption (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 minimized. The other was the community relations department, which carried out a long-term public education program to encourage 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 organization'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 that 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 realized the situation had fundamentally changed. By the time the amnesty was offered, the ICAC had so much credibility that most took the opportunity to go straight and put past bad behavior behind them.

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

But there were two other factors that enabled the city 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 misbehavior 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.

If the authorities on the mainland have the will to put all these components in place: creating a powerful organization reporting directly to the top; harnessing the fury of the masses; allowing the press to act as a backstop - then the mainland can also share the success Hong Kong has achieved.

The author worked in the ICAC from 1974 to 1980, and in the HK government until 2008. He is now the Search Director of Stanton Chase International.

(HK Edition 02/23/2013 page1)