Hong Kong, a home-ruled Special Administrative Region of China since 1997, is one of the least corrupt economies on earth. It sits atop this year’s Wall Street Journal / Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom, and occupies the 12th spot (tied with Austria) on Transparency International’s current Corruption Perception Index. But even in Hong Kong, graft happens.
Earlier this week, fourteen people, including six mortuary workers at public hospitals and eight agents from private funeral homes, were arrested by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption, or ICAC. They were charged with “corruption in handling bodies at the mortuaries.” The arrests were part of an ICAC anticorruption operation, code-named Gypsy.
The ICAC said its investigation revealed that the mortuary staff allegedly accepted monthly bribe payments from the funeral home agents as rewards for preferential treatment. The morgue workers collected illegal rebates for referring family members of the deceased to certain funeral homes. They also helped the bribe-paying funeral agents by letting them collect bodies outside normal hospital operating hours, and even dressing up the bodies before releasing them. Those arrested are on ICAC bail.
Such a scandal is rare these days for Hong Kong. But the place wasn’t always squeaky clean. Far from it. According to the ICAC’s website, in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the territory was still under British control, public corruption was rampant. Ambulance crews demanded “tea money” before picking up a sick person; firemen solicited bribes before turning on the hoses to put out a fire; even hospital staff expected “tips” before handing patients a bedpan or a glass of water. Public housing, schools and other public services were only available to those willing to pay. And the group worst infected by corruption was the police force. Instead of fighting crime, its business became protecting those in prostitution, gambling and drugs.
As the ICAC put it, “Law and order was under threat. Many in the community had fallen victim to corruption. . . . Public resentment escalated to new heights when a corrupt expatriate [British] police officer under investigation was able to flee Hong Kong. The case proved to be the last straw.”
What happened next was Hong Kong’s salvation. An independent commission looking into the case of the missing policeman concluded that the public would never again accept any police role in fighting corruption. It recommended that the existing Anti-Corruption Office be separated from the police and made completely independent, and that’s what happened. The ICAC was set up in 1974. From the start, it was insulated from political influence and handed sweeping powers to investigate and make arrests, powers it still enjoys. It was “the beginning of a quiet revolution,” according to the ICAC’s website.
Today’s Hong Kong is beautiful and free, modern and exciting. To everyone there, best wishes for a healthy, happy and prosperous Lunar New Year. Kung Hei Fatt Choi!