The harbingers of doom have been silenced. Despite grim predictions, the approach of 1997 has not seen Hong Kong swept by a tide of lawlessness. For years commentators said criminals would seize on instability caused by the end of British rule and the imminent handover to expand their nefarious activities. The reality? Hong Kong's crime rate is at its lowest for 10 years. Latest figures released by Commissioner of Police Eddie Hui Ki-on show a 12.5 per cent fall in the first 11 months of 1996. Compared with other large cities, Hong Kong is one of the safest places to live in the world. The territory's police force solves more than half the crimes committed, compared with the Metropolitan Police in London's detection rate of only 15 per cent. In the first nine months of the year, violent crime fell 12 per cent, robberies dropped 32 per cent and car thefts 41 per cent. There were 14 per cent less thefts and 19 per cent less burglaries. The crime story of 1996 is, therefore, a success story. And it is one Secretary for Security Peter Lai Hing-ling is proud of. 'I do not want to sound sanctimonious but, as the figures show, our policies have been so successful that crime is not only being contained, it is being beaten,' Mr Lai said. He attributed the success to a boost in the number of front-line police officers. By bringing in civilian staff to carry out routine administrative jobs, more than 12,000 police officers have been allowed to return to the beat over the past three years. 'More money has been targeted to specific projects,' Mr Lai said. 'The organised and serious crime squads have been given bigger budgets to combat triad organisations and new databases have been established to speed up detective work.' Despite the downward trend, the year has not been free of its headline-grabbing stories. One of Hong Kong's best-known journalists, Leung Tin-wai, had his left hand chopped off in a gang attack in May at his Quarry Bay office. Only the skilful work of a team of doctors managed to re-attach the arm in a marathon 18-hour operation. Police suspected triad involvement and believed the attack was an attempt to stop the newspaperman publishing articles investigating the activities of criminal organisations. It is clear triads still have a firm grip on many illegal trades in the city. In October, triad enforcer Henfrey Tin Sau-kwong was jailed for 51/2 years for intimidating a witness who threatened to blow the whistle on an $8.5 billion cigarette smuggling racket. The informant, Tommy Chui To-yan, was found dead on March 2, floating bound and gagged in Singapore harbour. Tin was convicted of attempting to frighten him. No one has yet been charged with the murder. Not surprisingly, many international businesses admit they are more worried about triads than communists after this year's handover. Former policeman and Kroll Associates managing director Stephen Vickers gives seminars to businessmen wanting to set up in the territory. But it is not only armed gangs and thugs that are a threat to people's lives and businesses. Last year, a number of high-profile fraud trials gripped public attention. Former Carrian boss George Tan Soon-gin was finally brought to justice after a 13-year struggle, when he pleaded guilty in September to two fraud charges involving $1.83 billion. Once a prominent feature on the Hong Kong party set and a man renowned for his love of wealth, the 63-year-old tycoon wept in the dock as he was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Passing judgment, Mr Justice Michael Stuart-Moore said the penalty would have been far harsher but that Tan suffered from a heart condition and dementia, and had only a 20 per cent chance of surviving to 1999. The longest soap opera of the year, however, was the case against Aaron Nattrass - a former immigration consultant who denied receiving $500,000 by making false promises to Hong Kong residents wanting to emigrate. With lawyers suddenly resigning and accusations flying, the trial had all the ingredients of a prime-time TV show. Even the Queen made a surprise appearance when she was called upon to arbitrate a dispute with the New Zealand Government. Things took an even more spectacular twist when it was revealed that Judge Brian Caird had told two Crown counsel that the two other trial judges had pressured him to find Nattrass guilty. Later, he insisted he had been mistaken, before revealing he had an 'abnormality of the brain' which would force him to retire. The saga continues with the trial's scheduled restart yesterday. These cases, though spectacular, did not herald the materialisation of the long-predicted pre-1997 explosion in fraud. In fact, the number of fraud cases reported to the Independent Commission Against Corruption was 2,755 in the first 11 months of last year, compared with 3,234 in the same period of 1995. Clearly, despite the pressures upon it, Hong Kong is still managing to keep control over its own house. But there is a black spot in the crime success story, in an area that is perhaps the most distressing. Rape and sexual assaults, especially involving children and teenagers, continued to soar. Incidents rose 8.8 per cent last year, despite extra police patrols being set up in areas notorious for attacks. Eleven incest cases were tried in the first 11 months of 1996, compared with six in 1995. Studies show unreported incest is the most common crime committed by adults against children. Furthermore, just under a third of offenders arrested for rape are aged between 16 and 20. The Government has introduced proposals to control the upward trend. The Law Reform Commission Report on Arrest wants to raise the maximum penalty for 11 sex offences to at least 10 years in jail. Secretary for Security Mr Lai said: 'There is no reason why, in 1997, we should not continue our success. Co-operation has been established with the Chinese forces and the territory's police are among the best-equipped in the world.'