The amount of corruption complaints to the Independent Commission Against Corruption plunged by a third last year, the biggest decrease in both percentage and number since the agency's inception in 1974.
Announcing the figures yesterday ICAC commissioner Simon Peh Yun-lu admitted "individual incidents" during the year had damaged the agency's reputation.
But Peh insisted at a meeting of the Legislative Council security panel that corruption in Hong Kong showed no sign of worsening. He said the ICAC had received 2,653 cases after discounting election-related complaints last year, compared with 3,932 in 2012.
The graft-busting agency's reputation suffered a heavy blow last year from a scandal over the spending of former commissioner Timothy Tong Hin-ming and its community relations department.
But Peh cited an annual survey commissioned by the ICAC in which about 80 per cent of respondents said they would report any corruption they encountered - a four-year high and up from about 76 per cent in 2012.
Those who said they had encountered corruption also dropped to 1.1 per cent last year, from 1.8 per cent in 2012.
Democratic Party chief executive Lam Cheuk-ting, a former ICAC investigator, said these conclusions contradicted the public perception of the agency.
"The commissioner should not have described the [Timothy Tong] scandal as an 'individual case' when it was found that the ICAC had many internal checks-and-balances issues which involve not only Tong," Lam said.
He urged Peh to face the problem instead of putting all the blame on Tong.
Public trust in the ICAC had been in decline even before the Tong scandal, Lam said.
He cited conflict-of-interest accusations made in 2012 against top officials, including then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, development chief Mak Chai-kwong and former chief secretary for administration Rafael Hui Si-yan.
Of the 2,653 complaints received last year, 1,732 were classified as pursuable, a 41 per cent drop from 2012. Complaints against the private sector saw the largest decrease of 34 per cent to 1,649 last year, down from 2,483 in 2012, Peh said.
Complaints involving government departments and the public sector last year were down to 808 and 195 respectively, representing decreases of 32 per cent and 24 per cent.
The number of complaints received has remained fairly steady between 3,377 and 3,868 between 2004 and 2012, according to the ICAC website. The last significant decrease came between 1975 - a year after the ICAC was established - and 1978.
Former ICAC chief investigator Stephen Char Shik-ngor said this fall did reflect a decrease in corruption as civil servants exercised restraint after seeing the agency was serious in clamping down on corruption.
The agency however entered a credibility crisis after then governor Murray MacLehose in November 1977 granted a partial amnesty to all suspects under investigation before January 1 of that year after a clash between police and the ICAC.
Security chief Lai Tung-kwok meanwhile dismissed worries that the upgrade of the police technology crime division to a Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau this year was for surveillance. "The new bureau mainly targets criminals with no element of surveillance," Lai said. Police would be looking for unusual network traffic without intercepting any personal data.