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The ICAC and Anti-Corruption Efforts in China

+ Brandon Fuller

Yesterday, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) brought bribery charges against a former high-ranking official and two real estate magnates. The high-profile arrests seem less a sign of rising corruption in Hong Kong and more an illustration of the ICAC’s power to pursue its mandate. As The Economist’s Analects blog points out, the ICAC’s autonomy is the envy of mainland China, where corruption remains a problem and no such independent anti-corruption entity exists:

Online commentators in the rest of China are keenly watching the ICAC’s moves. For all the Hong Kong public’s worries about corruption, their counterparts elsewhere in the country have a good deal more to complain about. Even Chinese officials sometimes speak admiringly of the ICAC’s ability to operate without political interference and of Hong Kong officialdom’s relatively clean conduct.

Hong Kong’s dramatic success in defeating its culture of corruption in the 1970s actually bodes quite well for would-be reformers in mainland China. At the time of ICAC’s founding in the 1970s, corruption in Hong Kong was virtually indistinguishable from the mainland. In 1977, 38% of Hong Kongers believed that corruption was widespread. By 1982 only 8% did. Today, Transparency International ranks Hong Kong among the least corrupt places in the world, ahead of the United Kingdom, Japan, and the United States.

One option for mainland China is to copy the ICAC model, creating independent prosecutor with well paid employees recruited from the civilian population. Another option would be for China to simply outsource anti-corruption efforts directly to the Hong Kong-based ICAC. Outsourcing might merit a more incremental approach: start by giving the ICAC responsibility for fighting corruption in one or two select municipalities or SEZs and see how things go. 

The main impediment to corruption reforms in China appears to be concerns about prosecution for prior offenses:

[The] Communist Party has been reluctant to give anti-corruption institutions the same independent powers as the ICAC for fear of weakening the party’s authority and embarrassing its leaders.

On this front, the ICAC’s experience might prove instructive as well. The ICAC’s initial efforts met with considerable resistance from the police, an agency with an entrenched culture of corruption. As a result of police protests, the ICAC was forced to grant amnesty for past crimes, after which the commission was free to use its power to prosecute fresh cases. Some combination of amnesty and an experimental phase-in could offer a path to tackling corruption in China, a path that both high-level Party officials and the broader population would like to go down.

For more on the history of the ICAC, read Melanie Manion’s book Corruption By Design (Harvard University Press).

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