SCMP HK Crime .pdf
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Hong Kong’s next crime wave
The unedited version of an article published in the South China Morning Post, August 5,
2003 (page A11).
Hong Kong is frequently touted as a city safe from crime and disorder. Recent
concerns expressed by both the tourist industry and police about the impact of
economic distress on the risk of crime and revelations that the construction industry
absorb fines for noise and water pollution as a routine cost suggest that this useful
source of civic pride cannot be taken for granted. How government and the
community respond to crime in times of fiscal austerity, high youth unemployment
and rapidly evolving new forms of substance abuse and criminal activity is crucial.
The development of cost effective strategies of crime control must be a primary focus
of government policy. Hong Kong’s prosperity is linked to the perception it is a safe
city for business and tourist alike and a ministerial level ‘law and order’ portfolio
should be re-defined to give prominence to a holistic approach to crime reduction.
Despite a densely populated urban environment Hong Kong’s low crime rate has been
attributed to an environment highly favourable to natural and informal surveillance,
cultural homogeneity and, considerable public and private investment in policing. A
compliant pro-social society hostile to crime and corruption despite a popular culture
that romanticizes triads and the presence of the world’s sixth largest police force (per
capita)1, strict gun laws and compulsory identity cards also contribute to lower levels
of crime. Traditional values and family structures are significant but weakening.
Compared to our neighbours Shenzhen and Macau2 and other cities Hong Kong's
official crime rate are low especially for homicide, burglary, car theft and robbery.
The overall crime rate was around 1,100 through 1998-2002 well down on its peak of
1,667 per 100,000 in 1982 but may again rise rapidly. However, we don’t know why
crime patterns have changed and the challenge is to understand which factors are
crucial in protecting modern cities from crime.
So widely accepted is the ‘crime free’ image that we have almost come to believe it
was always so and always will be. Nevertheless, virtually all of us have been or will
become victims of crimes be it the hacking or spamming of our digital highways,
theft, robbery and fraud of our property, or unwanted sexual advances. According to
the last crime victim survey3 in 1998 that estimates the ‘dark figure’ of unreported
crime, 4.1% of us and 8.0% of our households suffered at least one crime. This is still
Hong Kong at 640 police per 100,000 is lower than Singapore at 1075 police per 100,000 and the
Russian Federation  but well above Denmark , Canada , Australia , and USA
. The rate exceeds other Asian neighbours such as Malaysia , Philippines  and Japan
with 207 police per 100,000 population.
In the mid 1990s Hong Kong’s per capita homicide rate was 1.23 much less than cities such as New
York at 16.1 or Chicago at 29.9 per 100,000 of population. However, the homicide rate was
comparable with Singapore 0.83, Sydney 1.9, and London 2.2 but significantly lower than nearby
cities Macau at 5.9, Shenzhen at 4.6 or Manila at 12.0 per 100,000 of population.
Estimations of the risk of criminal victimization are provided by the six sweeps of the Hong Kong
Crime Victim Survey conducted in 1978, 1981, 1986, 1989, 1994 and 1998. The last survey conducted
in January 1999 for crimes occurring in 1998 contacted 17,602 households and interviewed 49,942
persons 12 years and over from an eligible population of 5,674,600 persons and 2,000,000 households.
The survey scope is confined to crimes against the person or household crimes and excludes some
serious crimes (e.g. corruption and commercial crime).
one of the lowest rates of victimization amongst industrialized nations. Yet in 1998
alone 175,400 persons were estimated to have experienced a crime, 15% of them
were victims of violence and over 5% suffered five or more crimes.
Trends since the first victim survey in 1978 show the risks of personal crime
victimization have not increased for most age groups but a significant rise has been
observed for the youngest respondents – the risks for youth have increased. Most
worrying is the decline in the willingness to report offences to police especially for
violent crimes. Hong Kong women, if victims of sex offences, are not convinced our
criminal justice system is a source of help. Victims fail to report for many reasons but
over a quarter believed "nothing could be done" because police cannot or would not
help and one-sixth did not report due to a perception that the procedures were difficult.
A small but significant proportion feared revenge or reprisal. The next survey, if
undertaken as hoped in 2004, will likely describe a deteriorating picture but the
infrequent monitoring of crime trends gives little scope to anticipate the next crime
wave. This survey also tells us nothing about fraud and commercial crime nor the
new forms of computer-related crime and undercounts domestic violence.
At the start of the 21st century old crimes transform and new crimes emerge as Hong
Kong’s continues the shift from industrial to service or a knowledge based economy
and its population ages the nature of crime mutates to accommodate new
opportunities. Amongst these, e-commerce, pension and investment frauds and
international organised crime emerge as potential new crime waves.
The lure of lucrative trans-national crimes such as smuggling, money laundering and
cyber crime attract offenders to the opportunities and efficiencies of a world city at
the doorstep of China’s fast growing economy. An emerging economy acknowledged
as endangered by rampant corruption and prey to the plunder of indigenous and
foreign crime syndicates. More insidiously entrepreneurial criminal enterprises that
are indistinguishable from legitimate business may operate telemarketing fraud and
other deceptions with relative impunity in a business friendly city. Corporate and
professional delinquents may find crime lucrative in a struggling economy and if the
hard lessons of the notorious Carrian case are remembered even well paid officials
are not immune from bribery.
In such a context Hong Kong’s highly capable law enforcement agencies have a role
to play in a region where safe havens and ‘captured’ states are a risk. While crossborder law enforcement co-operation has developed apace cooperation must evolve
into collaboration and Hong Kong could become a major regional centre for law
enforcement training and development. Steps already taken to capitalise on our ‘law
and order’ infrastructure could be strengthened if government articulated a strategic
and comprehensive crime prevention policy. In this way the ‘world city’ could fully
contribute to international and local law and order, through broadly conceived mutual
legal assistance that activate the cliché “act locally – think globally”.
Hong Kong triads have traditionally run vice, smuggling and protection rackets but
they do not monopolise the sporadic opportunities offered by trans-national crimes
such as drug and human smuggling that typically co-mingle with legitimate business.
Instead freelance task specific crime syndicates utilise networks of expertise to
undertake hazardous trans-national crimes where alliances need only be temporary –
thus elusive and dynamic criminal networks rather than 19th century secret societies
are the order of the day. Thus seeking out the “Mr Big” may be pointless because
there are many “Mr Big enoughs”.
While police and other agencies have been innovative they operate in the context of
the criminal justice system – a ‘system’ in Hong Kong that is not cohesive and
equates punishment with crime prevention. In criminology no such assumption is
made – punishment is merely one possible and perhaps not very effective means to
prevent crime. Crime prevention is a broad concept that goes far beyond locking
doors and employing watchman to include crime reduction programmes that focus on
families, schools, labour markets, communities, police practice, courts and
corrections. In a recent review by Professor Sherman and colleagues (Jerry Lee
Centre of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania) of what works found many
established programmes including ‘scared straight’, boot camp and intensive
probation as well as popular community programmes such as juvenile wilderness
programmes, neighbourhood watch and community policing did not work. However,
it is evaluation that matters and Hong Kong must set out to do its own homework on
what works, what does not and what is promising in crime prevention.
Law enforcement, peacekeeping and justice do not come cheaply: about 12 percent of
annual government expenditure is devoted to the maintenance of security, an outlay
that is exceeded only by spending on health and education. Hong Kong despite a low
crime rate has a high rate of imprisonment but there is no established correlation
between imprisonment and crime rates. Yet we plan to build a new super-prison to
contain a projected increase in the prison population. Predicting future prison
populations is no simple task and independent evidence based research that
determines the probabilities of repeat offending and the relative effectiveness of
various penal measures is essential. Critically the cost versus the presumed benefit of
prison compared to community corrections (parole, probation and community work
orders) or restorative justice approaches should be considered. Overseas research
suggests that less costly measures of penal supervision perform as well if not better in
terms of crime reduction than imprisonment.
Hong Kong’s criminal justice institutions are amongst the best in Asia and a notable
contribution was the creation in 1974 of the Independent Commission Against
Corruption [ICAC]. This institution has had a profound impact on criminology and is
now widely copied as a means of reinforcing good governance in both public and
private spheres and has recently been praised as a model institution at the Global
Forum III on Corruption held in Seoul, Korea. The ICAC came into being to curb
corruption and the associated loss of confidence in our law enforcement institutions
but it was political will and leadership that has made it the icon of ‘clean’ government
the world over. A generation later we again face the challenge of even more predatory,
diverse, professional and trans-national forms of crime equally dangerous to our civic
well-being and once again leadership is required to create the public and private
partnerships that make crime prevention work.
Dr. Roderic Broadhurst, senior fellow, Centre for Criminology, The University of
Hong Kong: www.hku.hk/crime.
Table 1: Comparative Burglary Rates (per 100,000) 1996
England & Wales
Sources: various national crime statistics
Table 2: Comparative Prison Rates in 2000
Source: Asia Pacific Association of Corrections 2000: *rates of imprisonment per 100,000.