On the Anti-Graft Front, Hong Kong Can Teach

Here is my translation of the salient parts of the Timothy Tong interview (the quotes are all Tong’s answers to the reporters' questions):-

"…. I think that the ICAC owes its success to three factors: first, the legal system and regulations; second, a sound implementation system, in particular, its independent nature; and third, the support of our government and our citizens."

"My understanding of the word 'independence' is that the Commission is not answerable to or subject to the influence of any entity except the Chief Executive. It also supersedes personal wishes outside the realm of anti-corruption duties. ‘Independence’ serves to create a fair and just system – ‘independence’ is only meaningful if people adhere to the system without sidetracking. But this does not mean that the ICAC personnel can do whatever they wish. I, for one, have no authority to withdraw any ongoing case investigation."

"When a person gives and accepts bribes, the issue is not that if the amount involved is not up to a certain level, then the person can be considered not guilty. Common Law does not allow such a concept. As to how the amount of bribe influences a court’s sentencing decision, it is up to the court to calibrate. So, one cannot be deemed not guilty just because the amount of bribe is small. When the ICAC was first set up, there were many cases that involved petty bribes, like public hospital amahs receiving HK$2 tips, and policemen receiving HK$5 protection fees from hawkers. Such cases were all subject to investigation."

"The ICAC cannot press charges. It can only investigate. It is a powerful investigation organization, but it cannot determine whether someone is guilty or not guilty."

"The ICAC has vested duties to conduct investigations. It is authorized under the Anti-Corruption Laws to investigate any person who is allegedly involved in corruption, including Hong Kong’s highest-ranked political leader. If there is a reasonable suspicion that the Chief Executive is involved with corruption, and the Commission does nothing to initiate an investigation, then it would lose the support of the citizens. Within Hong Kong, nobody is outside of our scope of investigation power. But of course, the Commission cannot investigate those outside Hong Kong’s jurisdiction."

"Civil workers cannot accept benefits of any kind outside the legal authorization or without a valid reason – it is against the law. Generally speaking, being treated to a dinner is not a benefit. But the bottom line is whether the dinner is unreasonably extravagant. For example, if someone invites me to dinner in Macao and sends a helicopter to pick me up, and if I still accept the invitation regardless, then even if there is nothing in the law based on which I can be charged, there is still a problem with my personal ethics."

"Our salaries are all regulated. There is no secret about it. It’s all open. Not just the ICAC – it’s the same with all government civil workers. We have a disclosure system. In general, the disclosure system is more stringent for the higher-ranked officials and those in sensitive positions and they are required to disclose more frequently. For example, if they buy and sell stocks, any transaction that exceeds HK$200,000 will have to be disclosed within seven days, otherwise they will have breached the regulations. Even if the investment amounts to less than HK$200,000, it has to be disclosed within a year – declaration of investments needs to be updated annually."

- End of Translation -

Blogger’s Comments:

The said article appeared two days after China blogger “Chinageeks” had posted a translation of Mainland blogger Li Yinhe’s piece querying why the Central government doesn’t copy the good example of Hong Kong’s ICAC in fighting corruption. Southern Metropolis Daily deserves commendation for drawing Mainlanders’ attention to some of the functions of the anti-corruption body and their underlying concepts.

No doubt having a clean government has always been one of Hong Kong’s greatest assets. It certainly is no accident that Hong Kong has been looked upon as the role model by many countries in the world in the combat against graft. Much is owed to Governor Murray MacLehose for setting up the ICAC in 1974 and for staunchly standing behind the Commission in putting an end to endemic corruption back then. Zealous support of the spirit and function of the Commission by subsequent administrations and society has helped sustain a relatively corruption-averse tradition, particularly in the public sector.

Apart from a world-acclaimed clean government, another valuable, though intangible, effect of those early efforts is the moral consciousness that has been instilled in society since the days of the 1970s anti-graft campaigns. When most people in society and the media condemn corruption openly, would-be perpetrators would at least think twice before getting involved with graft. To be able to get to such a stage, education of course plays an important role. Hence, the ICAC’s mission statement: “The ICAC is committed to fighting corruption through effective law enforcement, education and prevention to help keep Hong Kong fair, just, stable and prosperous.”

That said, there is evidence that Hong Kong may have become a little too snug in the anti-graft battle. Despite ranking 4th in Asia-Pacific in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index (12th in the world), Hong Kong saw a worsening in perceived levels of corruption (in terms of score). By comparison, China ranked 12th in the Asia-Pacific region in 2008 (72nd in the world), having improved over the last three years, although the score remains troublingly low.

If Mainland China has the political will to tackle corruption effectively, there is surely a way. It might help to remember that effective law enforcement and education are the key cornerstones upon which a corruption-free society is built. It goes without saying that a free press is invaluable in uncovering graft and helping to educate the public and achieve effective law enforcement. As far as practical measures are concerned, a shining example is right at her doorstep if she cares to study it.

On the other hand, Hong Kong would be ill-advised to rest on her laurels and let down her guard on corruption.