Crime Trends in Hong Kong

Dr. Roderic Broadhurst, Associate Professor, Centre for Criminology, Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong. Working paper prepared in part for the Hong Kong Social Services Council - Social Indicators Project 2000.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to David Hodson and David Levin for their thoughtful comments and suggestion on an earlier draft of this paper. In addition I would like to thank Ms.Candy Leong and Ms. Lena Zhong for their assistance in obtaining crime data for Macau and Shenzhen.


This chapter focuses on crime reported in Hong Kong since post-war 1945 and is not a comprehensive coverage of the crime problem in this unusual jurisdiction. The main focus is upon describing and explaining the nature and prevalence of crime as recorded by law enforcement and reported by crime victims. Explanations of changes in crime are critically reviewed in conclusion. Consequently discussion of offender populations, the impact of illegal immigration, the use of imprisonment1 and other sanctions on the nature and extent of crime are not addressed. These topics warrant fuller treatment than can be attempted in this account.

1Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the region at 163 per 100,000 only Singapore at 290, Thailand at 270 and, Mongolia at 253 exceed this level. Japan [40], Australia [100] Canada [114] and New Zealand [143 per 100,000] and most other Asian countries had much lower rates [APCCA 1998]. Imprisonment rates have declined from levels above 200 per 100,000 during 1991-1996 due to fluctuations in the numbers of illegal immigrants.

Whatever barometer crime may be, its prevention, detection and prosecution involves substantial public costs and provokes considerable public interest. The public's fear and perceived risks of crime are influential elements in the response to crime. These responses may not reflect objective or actual risks because of distortions and manipulations of the crime experience by the media and sometimes the relevant agencies. Because the effectiveness of crime suppression and prevention are one fundamental measure of the capability of the State, the "crime barometer" is a constructed and contested artefact of these crime control activities.  Pertinent, if flawed, "crime statistics" represent the "facts" and serve as the measure of crime. The statistics in turn become phenomena in their own right and the source for data and speculation on changing patterns of crime. Nevertheless apart from bureaucratic need, the State's interest in producing crime statistics is to promote the perception of public order, safety, predictability of law and to highlight its protective and essential role.

It is generally acknowledged that societies that are stable with low crime, secure and safe environments and rational means of dealing with conflicts and "rule" breaking are advanced and 'civilized' societies. In rational economic terms, such 'rule of law' States, generate sustainable wealth and attract rather than deter investment [World Bank 1997]. Crime then is a threat to social order and development as well as a problem of individual pathology or risk. The level of investment by the state in "law and order" reflects the political salience of public order and crime issues. Hong Kong supports a relatively large public2 and private policing establishment. In the last two decades about 12 percent of annual government expenditure was devoted to the maintenance of security, an outlay that is exceeded only by spending on health and education.

2About 53,000 officer were employed in 1999 as follows: HKP and Auxiliary 33,244; ICAC 1,287; Correctional Services 7,000; Customs and Excise 5,233; and Immigration  5,713. Thus there is 1 police officer for every 245 persons or 202 in Hong Kong if auxiliary police strength is included.

The fifth United Nations Criminal Justice System [UNCJS] survey ranked Hong Kong the sixth highest police to population rate at 640 police per 100,000 in 19943. The UNCJS survey reported an average rate for developing countries of 283 and 346 per 100,000 for industrialized countries [Newman 1999:124]. However, there is also a large private security and guarding industry in Hong Kong4. This suggests very considerable investment in crime prevention and loss reduction by private enterprises and individuals. This large investment in public and private policing ranked Hong Kong as one of the top spenders on criminal justice, exceeding troubled jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland  [Newman 1999:139].

3Hong Kong public policing levels are, however, well below Singapore at 1075 police per 100,000 and the Russian Federation [1225] but well above Denmark [238], Canada [249], Australia [275], and USA [300]. The rate exceeds other Asian neighbours such as Malaysia [430], Philippines [155] and Japan with 207 police per 100,000 population.
4In 1999 there were 722 registered security and guarding companies in Hong Kong employing approximately 160,000 registered personnel [personal communication Security and Guarding Services Industry Authority HKSAR]. In comparison, according to Nalla and Hoffman [1996: cited in Newman 1999] there are about 200 security companies in Singapore who employ between 15,000-20,000 private police a ratio of about 2 private police to every public police officer. Hong Kong's ratio is closer to 5 private police for every public police officer.

The Hong Kong Police [HKP] and the Independent Commission of Corruption [ICAC] have regularly polled public opinion and the Hong Kong Crime Victimization Surveys [HKCVS] measure satisfaction with the services of police. These polls tend to show a high degree of public confidence in the police and the anti-corruption body but the victim surveys show considerably less satisfaction with the police service, especially victims of violent crime5. Law and order is usually moderately ranked amongst the concerns of Hong Kong people: housing, the economy [recently youth unemployment], immigration, environment, health, transport, and education issues as well as relations with China dominate. Crime does, however, feature at the district level where public concerns about youth gangs, incivilities, vice, theft and vandalism are commonplace. The Hong Kong Chinese language press also provides extensive and often vivid accounts of crime and criminal trials but the effect on public opinion and attitudes towards crime has not been the subject of research in Hong Kong6.

5The 1998 HKCVS showed most victims thought the manner of police was pleasant or satisfactory although 9.4% did not, especially victims of violence [17.7% thought police were unpleasant]. Indeed 25.3% of victims of violence considered the police service "poor" or "very poor" while overall 13.6% of the respondents considered the police in this light [see Hong Kong 1999:114].
6The 1989 HKCVS asked about support for the abolition of the death penalty: about half [49.7%] were against abolition, nearly a third [29.9%] were in favour of abolition and one fifth [20.4%] had no opinion. Younger people [less than 29 years old] were more in favour of abolition than older respondents [Hong Kong Census and Statistics 1990; Gaylord and Galligher 1994]. The death penalty was abolished in 1991 although no execution had taken place since 1966.

The nature and prevalence of crime is open to several interpretations and may be 'read' differently depending on the sources relied upon and fundamental differences in assumptions about the causes of offending. The definition of 'crime' is plastic and while police statistics are usually valid measures of police activity they represent a problematic picture of the nature and prevalence of crime. Direct surveys of the crime experience [victim surveys] help compensate for hidden and under-reported offences but they are also limited in scope and accuracy. However, it is these sorts of official measures of crime that we largely rely upon to gauge changes in the risks of victimization, threats to public order, safety and revenues. Distinctions in the type of crimes or offences, their relative gravity and frequency also help to qualify the impact of crime. The characteristics of 'known offenders' and their propensity to re-offend is also highly relevant to these questions. The extent that these measures reflect [or 'index'] the true level of crime and offending then it is possible to test and 'read' crime statistics as measures of the relative safety and orderliness of a jurisdiction. By reading both recorded and random survey measures of crime this paper aims to describe the extent, nature and recent trends of crime in Hong Kong.

There are few critical assessments of crime trends in Hong Kong [but see, Leung 1995, Dobinson 1994, Lo 1993, Traver 1991 and 1994].  Interpretation of long term trends in reported crime has been hampered by changes in recording practices, counting rules and the classification of offences. Minimal data is published on the criminal courts and there is limited information on the risks of recidivism. Although police records of reported crime are usually seen as the universe of 'known' crime, other agencies, notably Customs and Excise, Immigration and the ICAC also contribute to the level of known crime but are inconsistently included in measures of the "overall" crime rate. In addition offences routinely categorized as "minor" offences or misdemeanours are not listed as crime and often excluded in discussions of the overall crime rate.

Recorded Crime in Hong Kong

However, while there are difficulties reading police statistics it is possible to gauge approximately the level of crime in Hong Kong. The general consensus is that Hong Kong has a comparatively low level of crime7 and indeed this fact is frequently stressed in tourism and other promotions of the city. As the Security Bureau's recent assessment of the 1999 official crime reports proclaims "[D]espite the economic downturn, Hong Kong remains one of the safest cities in the world with an overall crime rate lower than many other metropolitan cities" [HKSAR Security Bureau 1999:].  The overall per capita rate [per 100,000] of reported crime was 1,122 in 1999 and 1,047 in 1998 a decline from the 1,448 recorded in 1994 and well down on its peak of 1,667 per 100,000 in 1982. Comparative burglary rates show that just this offence alone in Australia [2,130], New Zealand [2,451], England and Wales [2,452] and Germany [2,936] exceed the overall crime rate for Hong Kong. In the USA a rate of 1,041 burglaries per 100,000 accounts alone for nearly three-quarters of the rate of all crime in Hong Kong. The burglary rate in Hong Kong was 223 per 100,000 and amongst advanced countries Japan's burglary rate of 200 is at similar level but both have rate well above Singapore at 30-44 burglaries per 100,000 population8.

7Comparative crime victim surveys also support this proposition; personnel communication John van Kesteren, Department of Penal Law & Criminology, Leiden University.
8The comparative data refers to 1994 [Mukherjee, Carcach and Higgins 1997: 77] except for Singapore which refers to 1995-1998 [Singapore 2000 Annual Report of the Singapore Police Force 1997-98; 1998-9:]

Homicide is regarded a robust temporal measure of violent crime because it is much less subject to the vagaries of reporting, recording and definitional changes. Hong Kong homicide data supports the picture of the relatively low impact of crime [see below]. Hong Kong has a very low rate of 1.23 homicides per 100,000 population especially compared to large cities in the USA such as New York at 16.1 and Chicago 29.9. However, differences are less dramatic when compared with Singapore 0.83, Sydney 1.9, London 2.2, and Berlin 3.5 but still significantly lower than  nearby cities Macau 7.3, and Shenzhen 4.59.  Compared to these and other cities Hong Kong's crime rate is relatively low, especially for offences such as burglary, car theft and robbery, offences notable for their sensitivity to environmental and situational determinants. As we shall see this relatively low rate of crime is largely supported by the results of the periodic crime victim surveys undertaken in Hong Kong, albeit that the surveys show much higher levels of crime than police records.

9All homicide rates cited are for 1996, except for Macau and Shenzhen which refer to 1997 and 1995 respectively.

In Table I the 1989 and 1998 recorded crime is described and the proportional contribution of different types of crime is shown. The most common crimes recorded by the HKP are burglary, wounding and assault, theft from persons, criminal damage, shop theft and 'other' thefts. This 'snapshot' shows robbery, serious narcotic offences, motor vehicle theft and fraud and forgery in proportional decline whereas thefts [other than burglary], indecent assault and criminal damage increased their contribution to overall crime. Approximately 20% of reported crime involved violence but this relatively high proportion is reduced to about 12% if minor offences are included in total crime. Table Ia shows offences that are classified "minor" and if these are included the crime 'rate' is about 60% greater than the selected offences used to calculate official levels of crime. Some of these offences [for example, possession of narcotics, prostitution-related offences, common assault, drunkenness and disorderly conduct] are often included in the official measures of crime in other advanced jurisdictions. If ICAC reports of corruption are included a further 3,561 offences should be added to 1989 and 2,162 to 1998.

Reported crimes led to the arrest of  43,684 persons in 1989 a rate of 852 per 100,000 and in 1998 40,422 at 654 per 100,000 persons. In 1989 juveniles accounted for 17.0% of all arrests but 14.8% in 1998, while young persons [aged 16-20] accounted for 19.0% in 1989 falling to 16.4% in 1998. Rates of arrest for juveniles and young persons also fell from 962 to 800 per 10000 for juveniles and from 1,915 to 1,511 per 100,000 young persons.

Table I: Crimes Recorded by HKP 1989 and 1998
1989 1998
 No. % No. %
Homicide 107 0.13 66 0.09
Rape and indecent assault 1139 1.4 1304 1.8
Assault police 807 1.0 519 0.7
Assault & Wounding 6986 8.5 7191 10.0
Robbery 6452 7.9 3224 4.5
Criminal Intimidation 512 0.6 978 1.4
Other Violent Crime 1347 1.7 1400 1.9
All violent 17350 21.2 14682 20.4
Detected 8551 (49.3) 7643 (52.1)
Theft [snatching, pickpocket & from vehicles] 4985 6.9 7601 9.3
Shop theft 5140 6.3 6032 8.4
Motor vehicle theft 4476 5.5 2449 3.4
Other thefts 12795 15.6 13727 19.1
Fraud & Forgery 1783 2.2 384 0.5
All Property  40086  49.0 39958 55.5
Vice/Brothel Keeping  298 0.4 655 0.9
Abduction/Procuration 601 0.7 183 0.2
Other Against Morality  996 1.2 351 0.5
Serious Narcotics  5040 6.2 2778 3.9
Against lawful authority [escape, resist arrest, false report] 3599 4.4 959 1.3
Serious Immigration offences 1741 2.1 2072 2.9
Criminal damage 4876 6.0 5883 8.2
Disorder/Fighting 1195 1.4 1235 1.7
Unlawful Society 1041 1.3 906 1.3
Misc. Crimes [lending, gambling, public order] 1185 1.4 1276 1.8
Preventive Crime [loitering, weapons, pawning] 3763 4.6 1019 1.4
Other Crime 24308 29.2 17317 24.1
All Crime 81808 100 71962 100
Detected 39170 (47.9) 33139 (46.2)
All crime rate per 10000 1438.7 1076.1

Table Ia: Recorded "minor" offences
1989 1998
No. % No.   %
Minor Narcotics [possession] 3775 6.8 6719 14.9
Prostitution related 233 0.4 987 2.2
Pornographic literature not available not available 1314 2.9
Hawking 5294 9.5 6427 14.3
Obstruction 26040 46.9 10949 24.4
Common Assault not available not available 1469 3.3
Minor Immigration not available not available 4050 9.0
Drunk and Disorderly not available not available 329 0.7
Other minor offences 18751 33.8 11634 25.9
All "Minor" Offences 55446 100 44952 100

Victims of Crime and Reporting Behaviour

Estimations of the risk of criminal victimization are provided by the six sweeps of the HKCVS conducted in 1978, 1981, 1986, 1989, 1994 and 1998. The last survey conducted in January 1999 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 [or 0.88% of persons]. The survey scope is confined to crimes against the person or household crimes and excludes some serious crimes (e.g. corruption and commercial crime). The HKCVS like other victim surveys is subject to non-sampling error because it depends on the respondent's willingness to co-operate, honesty and memory but face-to-face interviews can help to reduce ambiguous and inconsistent responses about victimization over the past year. Large samples tend to produce more reliable estimates and the HKCVS sample is very large but even so for some of the rarer crimes the sample may be too small for reliable estimation. Repeated surveys provide valuable guidance on trends and the impact of crime policies.

Overall 352,200 crimes were estimated for 1998 and 175,400 persons experienced 192,700 criminal events at a rate of 3.4% of  persons for personal crime or 4.1% if minor offences excluded in the 1998 count are included10. A further 137,900 households experienced 159,500 crimes or a rate of 8.0%  for households in Hong Kong [see Table II].  This is one of the lowest rates of victimization amongst the industrialized nations participating in the International Crime Victimization Survey [ICVS; van Dijk and Kesteren 1996; Newman 1999].  About 5% [9,100 persons] of the victims of personal crime experienced more than 5 victimization events in 1998, illustrating that some segments of the population are at very high risk. Overall 14.8% [52,300] of the crimes reported to the survey involved crimes of violence, 39.9% [140,400] theft from persons and 45.3% [159,500] crimes affecting households [e.g. burglary and theft of cars]. The general trends of personal crime victimization show decreases in risks compared to previous sweeps in most age groups except for a significant rise in 1998 reported by the youngest respondents. Overall women are more at risk of personal theft and violence but males have higher risks of violent offences in the 12-19 years age group  and women in the 40-49 age group. Violent and personal crime victimization peaks for either sex in the younger 12-19 age groups [see Hong Kong 1999: Chart 1 Appendix].

10Note 39,000 "minor offences" comprising: 1,400 attempted assault; 15,600 attempted pick-pocketing, 4,300 common assault with no injury and; 17,700 involving objects dropped from a height without injury were excluded from the 1998 data and thus the overall rate compared to previous years is artificially reduced.

Table II: Trends in HKCVS Estimates of Crime 1978-1998
1978 1981 1986 1989 1994 1998
All Personal
%  population 2.19 3.92 4.02 2.43 3.32 3.40
% report to police 18.0 37.7 39.1 42.2 38.9 36.3
Crimes of Violence
%  population
0.98 0.98 0.95 0.67 1.05 0.92
% report to police 28.4 41.2 38.4 44.6 34.5 31.3
Personal Crimes of Theft
%  population
1.20 2.94 3.01 1.75 2.27 2.47
% report to police  9.5 36.6 39.4 41.3 40.9 38.2
All Household Crimes
%  population 4.65 8.64 7.37 6.12  9.34 7.98
% report to police 18.7 15.0 19.6 24.2 22.2 20.7

Source: Hong Kong 1999 Table 73 and Table 84: percent of population over age 12 and therefore higher than rates per 100,000 total population used as the denominator in Tables III-V: Rates for 1998 are depressed because of the exclusion of attempted and common assaults and other 'minor' offences [Note 10].

The proportion of respondents who claim to have reported offences to the HKP appears to have peaked in the 1989 sweep, thereafter declining, especially for crimes of violence. The reporting rates for personal crimes of theft remain relatively stable at around 2 in 5 cases since the mandatory requirement to carry a universal identification card for all those over 15 was introduced in 1980. Household crime has a relatively low level of reporting despite the incentive of insurance but this crime includes a large number of criminal damage offences, attempted burglary, and other minor thefts where the victim suffered little or no loss. Generally in 1998 about 20% of victims suffered no loss and 33.5% losses of $150 or less but for household crimes the proportion resulting in losses of $150 or less was higher at 42.2%. For crimes of violence 80% of victims sustained no injuries, however, the majority of those victims [63%] who reported to the police sustained injury indicating the importance of seriousness and the significance of evidence of an offence [injury, for example] in reporting behaviour.

People fail to report victimization for many reasons: about half [49.4%] reflect a "no need to report" attitude and most [34.7%] don't report because they suffered little or no loss; over a quarter [28.1%]  believed "nothing could be done" due to lack of evidence [15.3%] and that police cannot or would not help; a further 14.6% attributed not reporting to difficult procedures or they were "too busy"11 ; and a further 7.4% gave other reasons including reporting to someone else or fear of reprisal. Analysis of victim surveys show that the better-educated and higher income groups are more likely to report to police. There is also considerable variation in the levels of reporting depending on the gravity of the offence and the relationship of the victim to the offender. Respondents also may tend to over-report they contacted police or assume the victimization was a private matter [Alvazzi del Frate 1998, van Dijk and van Kesteren 1996]. The importance of reporting behaviour in understanding the nature and prevalence of crime is borne out in Tables III-V comparing police recorded crime rates with estimates from the HKCVS that reflect the experience [and perception] of criminal victimization for  selected offences.

11A small number of respondents [2.5%] said they did not report because they were "too busy" with as many as 10% of snatching victims giving this as the reason for not reporting.

Table III: HKCVS and HKP Trends for Select Offences
1978 1981 1986 1989 1994 1998
Rape & Indecent Assault
HKCVS rate 58 32 127 126 165 376
Police rate 34 33 33 41 39 39
Wounding & Assault
HKCVS rate 48 83 225 121 162 181
Police rate 13 99 103 123 107 129
HKCVS rate 661 633 284 229 295 200
Police rate 123 160 122 114 103 48
HKCVS rate 17 17 71 33 99 25
Police rate 58 22 12 10 14 7
Criminal Intimidation
HKCVS rate 48 35 145 102 233 251
Police rate 14 10 9 10 14 15
HKCVS rate 78 146 172 111 198 129
Police rate 16 39 33 26 27 14
HKCVS rate 683 1795 1635 784 947 1142
Police rate 23 44 56 17 14 10
HKCVS rate 26 18 96 128 116 112
Police rate 60 85 33 31 53 41
HKCVS rate 361 698 659 545 630 576
Police rate 118 206 216 192 223 146
Theft from Vehicle
HKCVS rate 196 322 291 220 431 312
Police rate 45 93 94 91 63 42
Criminal Damage
HKCVS rate 35 74 94 141 408 320
Police rate 40 59 82 96 96 100

Notes: Rates per 100,000 total population are rounded to the nearest whole number.

Some of the select offences compared in Table III show contradictory trends and different periods of high and low rates depending on the source. Except robbery the data shows relatively low rates in 1978 that increase substantially in the 1980s and then decline or remain below peak levels but higher than found in 1978.  Generally both measures indicate increases in wounding and assault, criminal damage and burglary and, declines in robbery. Trends in victim data show steep increases in sexual assaults, criminal intimidation, theft from vehicles, snatching  and  pick-pocketing whereas rates based on police figures show slight increases for sexual assault, stable rates for intimidation and theft from vehicles but declines in pick-pocketing. Blackmail and fraud victim rates indicate increases since 1978 but police rates indicate significant declines.

Trends in Violent and Property Crime

The definition and categorization of violent crime has been subject to some changes in official recording practices over the period. 'Violent crime' is defined by police to include: wounding, serious assault, assault police, criminal intimidation, armed and other robberies, blackmail, arson, homicide, kidnapping and aggravated burglary [the latter three rare]. These categories are largely mirrored in the HKCVS that includes rape and indecent assault, wounding and assault, robbery, blackmail and criminal intimidation. Table IV compares HKCVS estimates of violent crime and the numbers "known to police" with police records. Both measures show that the number of crimes of violence have increased but rates based on police records indicate a reduced risk of violent crime. The recent decline in police records is contradicted by the HKCVS which show rates remain high. While police figures record a peak in 1989 the victim survey shows the estimate for that year to be the lowest recorded although it was also the year when the HKCVS reported the highest proportion of victims willing to report to the police. While in 1989 police reports account for 55% of the violence estimated by the HKCVS they accounted for only 25% of these offences in 1998.

Table IV: HKCVS and HKP Trends in Crimes of Violence
1978 1981 1986 1989 1994 1998
HKCVS 36900 40300 43400 31200 52600 58000
% reported to police 28.4 41.2 38.4 44.6 34.5 31.3
estimated number 10480 16603 16665 13915 18147 18154
actual no. of reports to HKP 12422 16094 14085 17350 17232 14682
HKCVS rate 802.7 781.9 785.6 548.7 867.8 867.3
Police rate 228.0 312.2 254.9 305.1 284.3 219.5

Notes: The 1998 HKCVS published estimate 52,300 personal violence vicitmizations and the 95% confidence interval for was between 46,700-57,800 and the rate total population is 782. This estimate excludes the 5,700 attempted & "common assaults" dropped from the estimate and these are included in order to ensure comparability with previous sweeps. Rates are lower than Table II because the denominator is total population not the population over 12 years of age.

It is not possible to precisely compare overall property crimes recorded by police with all property  or theft crimes estimated in the HKCVS and consequently burglary is used as a substitute for trends in property crime in Table VI. Burglary is highly correlated with changes in police recorded property and overall crime [see Figure 1 below] and typically accounts for 25% of all property crime - a proportion that has remained relatively stable throughout the period. However, in 1992 34% of property offences were burglaries producing the peak rate [286 per 100,000] and the highest rate for all property crimes [829 per 100,000] since  levels reached in 1983-1985 [888 per 100,000]. HKCVS estimates show that burglary rates were highest in 1981 while police records show the rate was highest in 1994 both measures show significant declines in 1998 but overall increases since 1978. As with crimes of violence,  victim reporting rates reached about 40% in 1989 but unlike violent crime the rate has remained at this level [ see Table VI].

Table V: HKCVS and HKP Trends in Burglary
1978 1981 1986 1989 1994 1998
HKCVS 16600 36000 36400 31000 38200 38500
% report 33.6 27.9 32.8 41.1 40.3 40.4
estimated reports 5578 10044 11939 12741 15395 15600
actual no. of reports to HKP 5412 10592 11942 10913 13509 9765
HKCVS rate 361.1 698.5 658.9 545.2 630.2 575.7
Police rate 117.7 205.5 216.2 191.9 222.9 146.1

Notes: the 1998 HKCVS estimate calculates a 95% confidence interval of between 34,300-42,800 burglary victimizations and in 1994  the 95% confidence interval  was estimated at 34,000 - 42,500 burglaries; rates per 100,000 total population.

Explaining Changes in Crime in Hong Kong

Hong Kong's low rate of crime is a useful source of civic pride but why crime is low is also topic of considerable interest. Criminologists are equally concerned to understand the conditions that produce low risks of crime as they are to understand those that engender high risks of crime [see Clinard 1978]. Yet even if low levels of crime prevail we know that crime is not distributed equally or randomly: some citizens have much higher risks than others. Distinctions between acquisitive, violent and public order offences are also important and vary the risks. Temporal changes in the risk of crime are also relevant and reflect wider changes in the society, economy and regulatory environment. Leung [1995], Dobinson [1994] and Traver [1991] have noted the shifting trends in reported crime rates since the 1950s, especially the rise in the 1970s and 1980s and relative stability thereafter. However,  these studies pre-date the subsequent falls in recorded crime since 1995 [see Figure 1]12.

12Leung, Dobinson and Traver, however, did not employ multivariate or correlation techniques to explore potential relationships and were dependent on a single descriptive measure [reported crime] to discuss these changes and their significance. Correlations, between the offence categories in Figure 1 and total crime are not unexpectedly highly significant with violent crime accounting for less of the variance than  property crime: burglary alone accounted for 94% of the variance and robbery only 36%. A correlation between robbery and property and burglary offences, however, was not found and this is supported by the results of tests [including Spearman's Rank Order] on the HKCVS and HKP comparisons. HKCVS burglary and robbery rates are negatively correlated and HKP burglary and robbery rates are positively correlated, however, neither are significant  HKCVS and HKP burglary rates are significantly correlated [r = 0.85] but robbery is not [r = 0.69]. Robbery is, however, very significantly but negatively correlated with assault and wounding [r = 99], showing the decline in robbery has been associated with a concordant rise in assaults.

Figure 1 shows the overall violent crime reported to the HKP had increased from about 160 per 100,000 in 1970 to about 340 in 1990 declining in 1999 to 230 but this trend is contradicted by the HKCVS. The rate peaked at 410 in the mid-1970s but the highest rates according to the HKCVS occurred in the 1990s. Property crime [burglary, 'theft from person' and 'other theft'] has also increased from about 360 per 100, 000 in 1970 to 780 in 1990, however the rate peaked in the mid-1980s and also in 1992 at around 880 then declining to 560 per 100,000 in 1999. Estimates derived from the HKCVS,  on the other hand, show significant increases in violent crime rates in the 1990s but burglary an uneven decline since 1981 [see Table IV and V].

Several reasons have been suggested to account for the lower than expected levels of crime in a densely populated urban environment such as Hong Kong. The protective value of cultural  and ethnic homogeneity combined with the preservation of traditional Confucionist values and extended kinship structures may be significant but also may be weakening. A compliant pro-social society and a government hostile to crime and corruption13 also favour control over crime even in popular cultures that romanticize Triads. The presence of a large police force with extensive powers of "stop and search" and strict gun laws combined with compulsory identity cards14 also contribute to lower levels of crime. High levels of natural or informal surveillance, substantial investment in private policing and a relatively small enclosed jurisdiction are also highly advantageous.  In situational crime prevention terms the urban structure of Hong Kong facilitates the presence of capable guardians and reduces the opportunity for crime [with notable exceptions in some of the older and poorer housing estates] despite the availability of attractive targets in such a wealthy city [see Felson 1998]. These advantages may produce the displacement of crime to more vulnerable neighbours such as Shenzhen and Macau - jurisdictions with significantly higher levels of lethal violence and property crime15.

13Selective enforcement policies are necessary but have variable impact on measurement. For example the suppression of counterfeit products and other copyright offences is a relatively recent phenomena and many other offences are conditional on law enforcement activity. Thus it is necessary to keep in mind that crime reports are not equivalent to a measure of general compliance with laws.
14From 1980 it became compulsory to carry a universal identification card for all residents over the age of 15 and in 1987 the document was upgraded to make it more difficult to forge. Its introduction had any immediate impact on reporting behaviour, since loss or theft of the card and its replacement is mandatory. Citizens are required by law to carry the card and present it on police demand.
15In 1998 Macau recorded a property crime rate of 1,340, a violent crime rate of 305 and an overall crime rate of 1,971 per 100,000 compared to Hong Kong's property crime rate of 543, violent crime 220 and overall rate of 1,047 per 100,000. Over the period 1981-1998 Macau's property crime rate was significantly higher than Hong Kong but since 1995 rates are more than twice that of Hong Kong while violent crime rates have been more or less equivalent until 1994; thereafter rates in Macau increased and rates fell in Hong Kong. The 1998 the homicide rate in Macau was 5.9 compared to 0.96 per 100,000 in Hong Kong and in 1999 it was 9.5 compared to 0.92 per 100,000 in Hong Kong. Detailed crime data is not available for Zhenshen but Tan and Xue [1997] report a very rapid rise in homicide from 1.38 in 1990 to 4.49 per 100,000 in 1995.

Low crime rates in the late 1950s and 1960s have also been attributed to the focus on public order by police during the colonial "garrison" phase rather than crime suppression. In addition extensive corruption within the police and other government agencies during this period also reduced public confidence and willingness to report.  Improvements in relations with China in the 1970s enabled policing priorities to shift to more conventional policing roles and together with the creation of the Fight Crime Committee [1973] and the ICAC [1974] combined to provide the basis for an improvement in the public response to crime. Anti-corruption measures and consensus policing styles where promoted. The symbiosis between police and triads was broken as the campaign against corruption succeeded but led to increases in street and property crime and declines in levels of detection. Conscious efforts were made to de-colonise and re-legitimate policing and the 1978 HKCVS reflects, amongst other measures, the effects of these changes in governance. Greater efforts at community involvement in crime prevention led to positive increases in the public's willingness to report crime [Lethbridge 1985, Vagg 1991, Lo 1993, Gaylord and Traver 1995, Leung 1995]. This greater willingness to report crime to police has been assumed to translate into higher rates of crime but recent HKCVS data suggests some regress in the willingness of citizens to report.

Traver [1991] and Leung [1995] venture some explanation for the observed changes in recorded crime for 1957-1990 [see Traver 1991] and the causes of the rise in property and violent crime. The rises in police recorded violent crime from the mid-1970s, however, were not sustained although the HKCVS suggests this may be partially the result of a decreased willingness on the part of victims of violence to report. Traver [1991] drawing upon strain theories applies the notion of relative deprivation to account for the continued rise in property crime in the 1970s and 1980s despite substantial improvement in the general standard of living. He explains the continued increases in property crime as a shift from 'need' to 'greed' and the stability of crime rates [either violent or property] in the 1980s and 1990s arising from better distribution of the benefits of economic growth in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, since the 1990s both HKP recorded property and violent crime have decreased but the HKCVS show neither have declined [see Table II. Traver [1991] suggests that the effects of industrialization and urbanization weaken social control, especially informal mechanisms, and is partly responsible for the increases in known crime. The very low rates of recorded crime observed in the period 1957-1964 do not generally reflect pre-war or early post-war trends when rates for both property and violent crime were higher16. The process of industrialization begun in the pre-war was given impetus by the Korean conflict and so increases in crime are not fully consistent with the timing of socio-economic development.

16Rates for robbery were between 2.5-4.8 and burglary 40-55 per 100,000 in the period 1957-1964 [Dobinson 1994:20].

Leung [1995] draws on theories of modernization and development to explain the rise from the 1970s onwards and the apparent steady nature of reported criminal activity during the late 1980s and early 1990s17. He is troubled to explain why crime was low during the worst phases of industrialization but become higher after the "....most challenging and disruptive period of its economic development" [Leung 1995: 110]. However,  this assumes that industrialization produces more crime and that the worst effects of economic re-structuring occurred in the 1950s and 1960s but very significant re-structuring also occurred in the 1980s as capital and industry shifted to less costly operations in China and it can be argued this was, at least, as disruptive. This apparent paradox is resolved by arguing that the official record was greatly depressed in the 1950s and 1960s by the nature of the colonial [corrupt] policing institutions relationship to the community. The rapid localization and re-orientation of police from "force to service" improved public confidence and thus the increases in crime from the 1970s onwards are attributed to re-legitimization of government via policing strategies.

17Leung relies on Clifford's [1973] African examples to argue that modernization generates wealth and thus greater opportunities for theft causing crime rates to increase in developing countries. Historical studies of European crime suggest that urbanisation and development reduces violent crime but enhance acquisitive crimes [Johnson and Monkkonen 1996], however, despite numerous studies no clear conclusion has been reached on the effects of socio-economic development on crime [Alvazzi del Frate 1998, Newman 1999].

Leung [1995:110] argues that before the 1970s "...the government preoccupation with controlling political opposition and the police's connection with the triads had the effect of masking, and hence artificially deflating, the extent of criminal activity in society. Since that time...the police have had to adopt more stringent measures against criminal activities in order to boost their image and enhance their legitimacy in a context of mounting public discontent with civil service corruption. The public's confidence in the police subsequently increased, and crime reporting increased with it. The higher crime rates since the mid-1970s are to a significant extent a reflection of the public's greater willingness to report crime."  However, data from the HKCVS sheds doubt on arguments dependent on shifts in the willingness of Hong Kong citizens to report crime. Substantial increases in the willingness to report crime appear to have occurred between 1979 and 1981 but are mostly limited to violent or personal theft crimes. Police recorded violent crime rates actually peaked in 1974 before increases in the willingness to report violent crime are observed. Indeed declinesin the willingness to report household crime, especially burglary, are observed during this period and increases in the reporting of burglary are not noted until 1989. In addition the HKCVS trend data indicate real increases in crime occurred irrespective of  changes in reporting rates.

These studies of crime trends rely on the recorded rises in property crime to explain the presumed effects of modernization but other explanations are possible. Changes in the proportions of the relevant high risk delinquency age group 15-24 may be crucial. The proportion of the total population in the 15-24 age group has fallen substantially from 22.7% of the total population in 1981 to 13.3% in 1998. During the 1960s and 1970s this age cohort grew from a 11.8% of the population in 1961 to 19.4% in 1971 but began to decrease in the late 1980s as the post war baby-boom eased. In other words much of the "rise" and "fall" in crime rates was sympathetic with changing demographics, in particular the increasing proportion of high risk young males in the population in the 1970s and 1980s and the subsequent decline in the proportion of young males from the late 1980s onwards. This is reflected in the per capita decline in juvenile convictions which have fallen from about 98 in 1981 to about 30 per 100,000 in the late 1990s. Some of the decline in juvenile conviction rates can be attributed to the expansion of young offender diversion schemes particularly from the mid-1980s onwards.


By comparing the two leading sources of information on crime trends differences have emerged that challenge assumptions about the effect of economic growth on crime in Hong Kong. The response to crime shows less dependence on the level of economic development than previously thought and a close relationship between the presumed effects of modernization and crime have not emerged, in part because fundamental shifts and shocks in Hong Kong's economy, demography and social development have occurred in complex ways. The data does not support a linear relationship between crime and economic growth and at its peak crime remained well below most comparable societies.

Previous research has given ample attention to the influence of the role of government and the policing institution on crime rates to the extent that these are seen as decisive in constructing them. The public order focus attributed to police in the pre-reform period was more episodic than dominant and much less of a distraction to crime control than other researchers have supposed. Despite imperial origins, policing in Hong Kong followed the example of the British constabulary in stressing deference to the rule of law, the vigorous suppression of serious crime, and the preference for prevention and peace-keeping over pro-active crime control. This ideology was influential and widely endorsed within the policing institution particularly as the professionalism and localization of police in Hong Kong begun in the 1930s continued more vigorously in the post-war18. Although this professionalism appears at odds with the systemic corruption and associations with organized crime evident in the 1960s it is not clear that this amounted to a symbiotic relationship and that this suppressed reported crime to the extent relied upon by Vagg [1991] and others.  It is also noteworthy that efforts to eliminate corruption in the Royal Hong Kong Police in the early 1970s coincided with dramatic efforts to reform New Scotland Yard similarly racked by systemic corruption and scandal [Cox, Shirley and Short 1977]. The Hong Kong police have, at least since the post-war,  been a quasi-independent agency in the tradition of the Anglo-Saxon model of policing albeit configured in the style of a gendamerie. This serves to limit manipulation of police and crime trends for partisan purposes and contributed significantly to both stability in a rapidly changing society and the orderly transfer of sovereignty. This ethos may change but it is likely that crime [statistics] will remain the focus of contested interpretations of Hong Kong's prospects for stability and a key test of the success of "one country two systems".

18Local Cantonese comprised 76.5% of the HKP in 1946/47 up from the 41% prior to the Japanese occupation but under-represented in the Officer [inspector and above] ranks. By 1961/62 Cantonese comprised 84.7% of the HKP but remained under-represented in the Officer grades, however, by 1992 the HKP was 96.7% Cantonese and the majority of Officers were Cantonese [Gaylord and Traver 1995].

We may conclude from this brief examination of crime trends that Hong Kong as with many rapidly developing economies periodically experienced relatively sharp 'shock' increases in crime but has generally sustained a low risk of crime over much of the post-war period.  The fluctuations in police recorded crime are to a degree less significant when read along with the data from the HKCVS. Thus theorizing based on partial data is a problem that can only be overcome by a thorough examination of as many sources as possible. While still too little is known about the nature of crime or offenders and the relative impact of cultural, situational and institutional factors on crime trends it is possible to list the factors that appear to have contributed to low levels of crime in post-war Hong Kong. Amongst these an environment highly favourable to natural and informal surveillance, cultural homeogeniety and, high levels of public and private investment in policing appear significant. A challenge remains in unraveling which of these factors and others are crucial in protecting modern cities and societies from the costs of crime.


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