Hong Kong Struggles To Fight Official Graft

MIRRORING CHINA?

LAI KIN-KEUNG represents what is going wrong with Hong Kong police.

The senior police inspector was once considered a promising young officer, slated for the top ranks of the colony's 33,000-member force. Then last year, he was convicted of accepting almost $100,000 in bribes for organizing a ring of 20 officers and undermining prostitution crackdowns.

Just over a year before Hong Kong is due to return to Chinese rule, police and other official corruption has crept back to levels not seen for two decades.

Although China promised in a 1984 agreement to maintain Hong Kong's autonomy and capitalist ways, many here are not so confident. Rising crime and graft is stirring concern among analysts that Hong Kong's legal and economic system is beginning to mirror China's rampant corruption and lawlessness.

"There is a fast-bucks syndrome fueled by the 1997 [handover to China] issue," says Rosaline Cheung, an official of the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), the government's investigative arm. "People in Hong Kong feel the way to get the sense of protection they are looking for is to accumulate personal assets."

During the last three years, the ICAC's caseload has mushroomed. From almost 2,300 complaints in 1992, corruption reports jumped to 3,284 in 1993, 3,600 in 1994, and 3,232 last year. Most cases involve businessmen, but graft among government officials and civil servants is rising.

Since the first years of the investigative agency, which was set up in 1974 when Hong Kong was notorious for graft, the ICAC has used its sweeping investigative powers to boost Hong Kong's reputation as a fair and safe haven for international business.

Now, the endemic graft of mainland China seems to be spilling across the border into Hong Kong, political observers say. The Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy recently surveyed businessmen in 12 Asian countries and found China to be the most corrupt country in the region.

"We're already seeing signs of China taking over," frets Christine Loh, a lawyer and pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong. "There is more corruption and problems with law and order."

Many observers say the biggest difficulties could lay ahead. Once in charge, the Chinese-appointed governor of Hong Kong will directly control the police and ICAC investigators. Then, some fear, the police and the government's antigraft watchdog could use their powers more often on dissidents than on criminals or corrupt officials. "The ICAC will still have the powers to root out corruption. But where do you draw the line?" Ms. Loh asks.

The police force, the government's largest agency, faces the most serious erosion of confidence due to graft. Sensational incidents such as one involving 40 officers who posed for photographs as part of a pornography ring have had a serious impact, officials admit.

Prosecutions of police officers have jumped sharply, and the police force has incorporated ethics seminars into police training. "I don't sense there is a growing problem [with corruption], but the perception has gone up in the minds of the public," says Assistant Police Commissioner Mathew Walsh.

Still, morale has sagged as contacts with the mainland have expanded and temptations, particularly among officers working in vice, drug trafficking, and gambling, have grown. Fighting corruption has also been hurt by the exodus of many expatriate senior officers who are likely to retire before China assumes control.

And, Mr. Walsh explains, amid Hong Kong's "take-it-while-you-can" mentality, indebtedness has become a growing problem among police officers. "The main driving forces [behind indebtedness] are greed, life style, living beyond one's means. This has always been a problem among the civil service in general."

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