In the months leading up to the handover, barely a week passed without a poll showing that Hongkongers' biggest fear was that the city would rapidly return to the bad old days when corruption reigned supreme. Most of those who took part in such surveys reckoned graft would have a major resurgence once the British shipped out. Perhaps they were recalling the days in the 1960s and 1970s when firemen wouldn't put out a blaze until they got a kickback and police station sergeants would calculate whether they'd been paid enough to send their officers out to deal with a particular crime. In a survey by the Hong Kong Transition Project three months before the handover, 72 per cent of respondents said their greatest concern was corruption, especially among government officials. Another poll, this one by the British Chamber of Commerce, in May that year, showed an even more pessimistic view prevalent among British businessmen: 85 per cent of those polled said corruption would be worse after July 1. But a decade on, the naysayers have been proved wrong, say the Independent Commission Against Corruption and security specialists. The ICAC was set up in February 1974 to combat a rising tide of rot within the police force and civil service. Despite scepticism that the new agency would ever wipe out the graft that prevailed 'from womb to tomb', it smashed all known syndicates in the civil service, prosecuting 247 government officials, including 143 police officers, in three years. With a take-no-prisoners approach, the ICAC declared war on graft. Initially, it built up its numbers with former police officers from overseas to keep out anyone tainted by the corruption within local law enforcement divisions. Despite the ICAC's impressive efforts to clean up the city in the 23 years before the handover, there was no avoiding the sense of trepidation by Hongkongers that all the agency's good work would be wiped out after the clock struck midnight on June 30. Ten years on, those fears - if not laid entirely to rest as concerns grow about cross-border corruption cases - appear to have been allayed. In the 12 months leading up to the reversion to China, the ICAC launched 344 prosecutions. In the year after July 1, 1997, 370 cases were put before the courts. In recent years, prosecutions have remained at an average of about 300 a year, with considerably more reports than prosecutions. Last year, the ICAC received 3,339 reports of corruption - a 9 per cent drop from 2005. Corruption has now shifted from the control rooms of the police force and the meeting rooms of the civil service to the boardrooms of the private business sector, and the ICAC has evolved to deal with this. It has hired and trained investigators to sift through computer and accountancy records, rather than relying purely on the undercover and surveillance work that prevailed in the past. Cross-border crime - also an element in the fears expressed by those surveyed a decade ago - is climbing, in the form of fraud and illicit deals. During the past decade, reports of corruption involving the private sector accounted for more than half of all such statistics. Phil Curlewis, director of the security consultancy Abate Risk, said: 'Corruption has moved away from the government side to the private sector. It is far more corrupt on the business side than on the government side now. 'Sure, there has been a little bit of an increase in government corruption and more cases prosecuted recently, but not to the dramatic extent people thought there would be. But there has been a steady increase in the private sector, especially cross-border, with people in companies in Hong Kong working with China.' Last year, more than two-thirds of those prosecuted by the ICAC were senior executives of private companies. The no-nonsense approach used to break up the graft syndicates in the police and public sector now contains an element of the softly-softly approach, with more education and awareness programmes being developed. The ICAC created an educational programme for Hong Kong-based multinationals and businesses with offices or dealings on the mainland, giving them a list of dos and don'ts and advice on how to react to bribery offers. The anti-graft body quotes a number of recent polls that measured Hong Kong's ranking as a 'clean' place in which to do business. They include Berlin-based Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, in which the city was ranked the 15th least-corrupt place among 163 countries and places last year, its highest score since 1997. In that year, it was ranked 18th out of 52. Former senior police officer Steve Vickers, the president and chief executive of International Risk, said cross-border corruption had grown with the expansion of business links between Hong Kong and the mainland. Mainland companies are listing in Hong Kong and basing their front offices here, while the back-office work is done over the border. 'Clearly, the expansion of the cross-border activity in Hong Kong and its greater dependence on business from the mainland has involved Hong Kong in far more transactions, some of which have created problems, but most of which have not,' he said. 'In the past 10 years, [despite] a wider, bigger market, there has not been a significant degeneration in the quality of law enforcement or anti-corruption work.' Mr Vickers would like to see a more aggressive approach to dealing with senior levels of triad societies. 'Some of the triad societies have prospered in the past 10 years and gained significant financial clout,' he said. 'And while law and order is excellent in Hong Kong and stands head and shoulders above many cities in Asia, the discreet influence of triad societies has increased.' But one observer of security issues, legislator James To Kun-sun, said he felt the influence of the triads was declining in Hong Kong. Their profits from pirated DVDs and prostitution were falling due to the advent of downloadable entertainment and easier access to the mainland, he said. This has sent many triads across the border to make money and build up links with corrupt officials, who use the gangs' expertise and contacts for illicit ends. But corruption involving cross-border business links might be more prevalent than even the ICAC could know, Mr To said. As an example, he cited one major company that was told if it wanted a listing on the mainland it needed to hire a particular consultant. He did nothing, but took a 30 per cent cut of a very expensive deal. Mr To said many boardroom transactions and major deals seemed legitimate on paper but were classic examples of graft. 'These kinds of corrupt deals are not reported. No one ever questions them as they seem to be done in a very legitimate way,' Mr To said.