Going underground in the battle against graft
South China Morning Post 1997/07/11
Going underground in the battle against graft
By Kevin Sinclair
If you are contemplating some dodgy business deal with a fellow you have just met in a hotel lobby, take care. Should you be a civil servant thinking about accepting a gift to smooth the path of a government tender, be wary. You might be doing a deal with an undercover agent of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). And then you might be doing a few years behind bars.
The graft-busters have gone underground in an active campaign to hunt out the corrupt. It gets results.
The head of operations of the ICAC, Tony Kwok Man-wai, has launched a dramatic new crusade in the war against graft, 24 years after the commission was launched.
In a series of aggressive moves, the ICAC is taking the fight to the heartland of business and administration, to seek out, uncover and prosecute corruption that might otherwise never be detected.
In his newly refurbished office in the Murray Building, Mr Kwok hefts a bulky volume. It is a secret manual written by senior investigators to prepare ICAC men and women about to launch themselves into new careers as undercover agents.
For more than two decades, he explains, the ICAC has combated graft in the traditional policing manner. Investigators have received complaints and then gone out and probed them.
Now they have gone proactive: they no longer wait for graft to be unveiled but go out sniffing for corruption, trying to detect patterns of graft and illegality before, like scum, they float to the surface of society.
That is why special training is needed for undercover men and women who, with fabricated identities, are now out working in the community.
The overhaul of the commission's investigative arm began a year ago, after career ICAC man Mr Kwok took over at the top.
Thirty-six teams have been established, each covering a specific area of Hong Kong life. One covers customs, excise and associated fields, within government and the private sector. Another is responsible for the tourism sector. Others cover health, construction, education. All facets of life are examined.
Each team has to become expert in its field, cultivate informants and industry leaders, become trusted. Team members pick up whispers of what is happening in their chosen field, trace hints of rumours and quietly probe how deals are done.
This has yielded 26 active investigations in the past six months, inquiries that would never have developed if the ICAC men were still sitting in their offices awaiting complaints. In all, 38 prosecutions have been launched. So far, only three have gone as far as the courts, but all three defendants have been convicted.
"If we hadn't taken a proactive approach, all 38 would still be out there in the community," Mr Kwok said.
He emphasised that the proactive initiatives pre-dated his appointment as head of the ICAC's 1,000-strong investigatory arm.
The commission began setting up intelligence networks back in the 1980s when corruption was regarded as being well under control. That diligence paid off.
By 1993, there was a resurgence of corruption, with small syndicates being uncovered in the police force and urban services. He attributed this to anxiety and opportunism as the handover approached, with people testing the system and expecting they might get away with pocketing a quick small fortune.
No such luck.
"We were well prepared," he said. The intelligence units that look at trends and patterns spotted what was happening, the emerging syndicates were smashed.
"I can tell you, there's no serious resurgence of organised corruption," he said. He is determined to keep it that way.
Fears that the ICAC will hesitate before taking action against any Chinese-linked organisation or powerful individual are dismissed. Under the iron-hard rules laid down by the commission's first director of operations, Sir John Prendergast, extending favouritism or trying to halt or hinder the investigation of a complaint is impossibble. Once a complaint is made, it has to follow a rigorous and unbending path through both the commission and a layer of outside scrutiny. In the unlikely event that a top ICAC executive tried to influence a decision, it would be overruled by application of the in-built in safeguards.
So far, cross-border corruption has proved comparatively minor, involving only three per cent of cases in the first five months of this year.
The powerful Chinese Enterprises Association, often seen as the public face of mainland business and investment in Hong Kong, has been keen to co-operate with graft-hunters. "In any society, there's bound to be a group of people, because of their status or special relationships with those in power, who think they are above the law or should enjoy special privileges," Mr Kwok reflected.
"If they come to us with such ideas, they will be disappointed. There's no way we will treat anyone differently. We're immune from giving favours."
The recent transfer of sovercignty provided the ICAC an excellent opportunity to get its message across ina larger context. Despite his best efforts, Mr Kwok appears to have been severely disappointed, almost amazed, at international press coverage during the handover period. He and other ICAC executives briefed scores of journalists from around the globe extensively on how Hong Kong would hold firm against any threatening wave of corruption.
He sighed. "All we got was the negative perception, the doomsday scenario," he said. "The stories all predicted more corruption. They were really unfair."
Mr Kwok and other ICAC officers are well aware that every poll and survey conducted over the past year has shown Hong Kong people hold one overriding fear about the transition to China. They fear corruption will blossm in the SAR, with graft coming over the border along with Chinese officials and businessmen.
"It's business as usual," Mr Kwok said, pointing out that in the first nine days of the month investigators launched 10 small operations, arresting 39 people.
"Anyone who suggested the ICAC would lose its effectiveness will be proved wrong."