Newton Emerson: A Chinese lesson for Coveney
Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency serves as a model for Minister’s campaign centrepiece
Hong Kong: the city is rated one of the least corrupt places on earth, with a lower risk of commercial bribery than Norway. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
A powerful anti-corruption agency will be the centrepiece of Simon Coveney’s leadership campaign, it has been reported. I find this intriguing, having lived for several years in Hong Kong, which has the world’s most successful example of such a body.
The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was established in 1974. Within a decade it was credited with transforming one of the most graft-ridden societies on earth into an international model of propriety.
By the time I moved to Hong Kong in the early 1990s, the agency was spoken of in daily conversation with a mixture of awe and pride. People were genuinely scared of it – convinced it would catch them for the slightest misdemeanour. Yet they also believed this was crucial to the city’s treasured reputation for trustworthiness.
Pressure to set up the ICAC came from public frustration at police corruption, in particular an endemic culture of taking and demanding bribes.
The agency spent its first three years confronting the police, arresting so many officers – once famously an entire police station – that the force came to the verge of revolt.
In 1977, an amnesty was agreed over minor offences and officers were allowed to return to work. However, a new baseline for professional conduct had been established and few of these officers could expect much of a career.
I knew one of them socially, through an English language class. He had been convicted as a young constable of taking ten Hong Kong dollars – just over a euro – from a prostitute in the red light district. Twenty years later he was still a constable in the same district, still ashamed and spurned for every promotion – a living warning to colleagues and friends.
Having sent that warning, the ICAC moved on to the rest of its extremely broad remit. The agency is chartered to ensure confidence in the rule of law across the public and private sectors. It will investigate government officials and business owners – or protect them, if they have blown the whistle.
It also seeks to prevent and educate, while its definition of corruption extends from the financial to the political. Rumbling away below all of this is Hong Kong’s persistent problem with violent criminal gangs. The ICAC has a tendency to style itself as a finger-waving little FBI but the constant challenge of gangsterism maintains a hard edge to its operations.
It is not difficult to see parallels with Ireland – and it recalls the false dawn in Northern Ireland, where the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) briefly promised an anti-corruption drive.
Operating between 2003 and 2008, the ARA was a technical offshoot of moves to set up a so-called British FBI. This manifested itself in Northern Ireland, more by accident than design, as a threat to the finances of paramilitary gangs.
For a while, loyalist and republican godfathers were clearly concerned. Unfortunately, the ARA’s limited remit stopped it following the money in commercial and political directions, while the slowness of the legal system undermined the ARA’s main weapon of civil recovery cases. It never showed any interest in tackling non-gang related public and private sector corruption, let alone investigating the police.
Yet this was clearly something people saw a need for and very much wanted to work. The ARA garnered public and media attention out of all proportion to its activities as Northern Ireland hoped for some Elliot Ness-style “untouchables” to stop the obvious criminality in its midst.
Any powerful anti-corruption quango raises the question of who guards the guardians. The ICAC seems to have felt the need to reassert its credentials after Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, mounting a 1970s-scale crackdown on police corruption and keeping up the pressure since. However, this seems to have worked – Hong Kong is still rated one of the least corrupt places on earth, with a lower risk of commercial bribery than Norway.
No matter how many checks and balances are put into any human system, ultimately there has to be an act of faith in a small number of people near the top. The United States may be testing that theory to destruction but Hong Kong proves minor miracles can be durable enough.
The ICAC enjoys a glittering international reputation, and was created by British administers to target a British-run police force, so its obscurity in this part of the world is rather odd. In the run-up to the Belfast Agreement the globe was scoured for examples of best practice, and Hong Kong’s last governor was brought in to reform the RUC. Although the British and Irish governments chose to head down a route of institutional rights protection, that is hardly incompatible with tackling corruption. The rule of law is a fundamental right, while economic and social rights are meaningless without it.
Perhaps there is some squeamishness at comparing Ireland, North or South, to a colony. That should not stop us learning one of the best lessons Hong Kong has to offer.