How to Fight Hong Kong's Next Crime Wave
Roderic Broadhurst (Senior Fellow, Centre for Criminology, University of Hong Kong)
(This article originally appeared in the August 5, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher)
Hong Kong's prosperity is linked to the perception that it is a safe city for business and tourists alike. So widely accepted is Hong Kong's "crime-free" image that we have almost come to believe it was always so, and always will be.
Nevertheless, virtually everyone has been or will be victims of crime - 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 survey, in 1998, which estimates the "dark figure" of unreported crime, 4.1 per cent of people in Hong Kong and 8 per cent of our households suffered at least one crime. This is still one of the lowest rates among industrialised nations.
The overall official rate was 1,100 crimes per 100,000 people between 1998 and last year, well down on its peak of 1,667 per 100,000 in 1982, but may again rise rapidly. Yet in 1998 alone, 175,400 people, or about 3,086 per 100,000, were estimated by the survey to have been victims of crime; 15 per cent of them were victims of violence and more than 5 per cent were the victims of five or more crimes.
Trends since the first crime-victim survey in 1978 show that the risks of becoming a victim of personal crime have not increased for most age groups, but the risks for youths have increased. Most worrying is the recent decline in the willingness to report offences, especially violent crime. Hong Kong women, if they are victims of sex offences, are not convinced our criminal justice system can help. More than a quarter of crime victims believed that "nothing could be done" because police cannot or would not help. One-sixth of people did not report crime because of a perception that the procedures were difficult. A small proportion feared revenge or reprisal. The next survey, due to be carried out next year, will probably describe a deteriorating picture, but infrequent victim surveys that exclude commercial and computer-related crime give little scope to anticipate the next crime wave. It also undercounts domestic violence.
At the start of the 21st century, new types of crime are emerging as Hong Kong continues the shift from industrial to a service- or knowledge-based economy. As its population ages, so the nature of crime mutates to accommodate new opportunities. Amongst these, e-commerce, pension and investment frauds and international organised crime are emerging as potential new crime waves.
The lure of lucrative transnational 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 - which is acknowledged as being endangered by rampant corruption. 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.
In such a context, Hong Kong's highly capable law-enforcement agencies have a role to play in the region. While cross-border law enforcement co-operation has developed apace, co-operation 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 the government came up with a strategic and comprehensive crime-prevention policy. In this way, Asia's "world city" could fully contribute to international and local law and order, through broadly conceived, mutual legal assistance.
Hong Kong triads have traditionally run vice, smuggling and protection rackets, but they do not monopolise the sporadic opportunities offered by transnational crimes, such as drug smuggling and human trafficking. Instead, freelance task-specific crime syndicates utilise networks of expertise to undertake hazardous transnational 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.
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 to include crime-reduction programmes that focus on families, schools, labour markets, communities, police practice, courts and corrections. A review by Professor Lawrence Sherman and colleagues, from the Jerry Lee Centre of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that many established programmes did not prevent crime. These included boot camps and intensive probation, as well as neighbourhood watch and community policing schemes. However, it is evaluation that matters and Hong Kong must set out to do its own homework on what works in crime prevention.
Law enforcement, peacekeeping and justice do not come cheaply: about 12 per cent of government expenditure is devoted to the maintenance of security, an outlay that is exceeded only by spending on health and education. Despite a low crime rate, Hong Kong has a high rate of imprisonment - but there is no established correlation between imprisonment and crime rates. Yet there are plans to build a "superjail" to contain a projected increase in the prison population. Predicting prisoner numbers is not simple, and independent evidence-based research that determines the probabilities of repeat offending is essential. Critically, the cost versus the presumed benefit of prison, compared with community corrections (parole, probation and 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 among the best in Asia, and a notable contribution was the creation in 1974 of the Independent Commission Against Corruption. 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 transnational forms of crime equally dangerous to our civic well-being. Once again, leadership is required to create the public and private partnerships that make crime prevention work.