A GROUP of civil servants is under investigation by the ICAC over suspected involvement in cross-border corruption and ''commercial China trade''. The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) Director of Operations, Jim Buckle, said yesterday the employees had been under investigation for 12 to 18 months and some had already been interviewed by his officers. Mr Buckle refused to reveal how senior the civil servants were, or to which departments they were attached. He said the civil servants were being investigated individually and were not part of a syndicate. He said that, unlike people in the private sector, civil servants could be prosecuted for corrupt acts committed outside Hong Kong. Mr Buckle said the rate of corruption reports this year had risen by eight per cent over the past year and such crimes increasingly involved people doing business with China. ''There is - fuelled by that July 1997 time boundary - a frenzy in some government servants and businessmen to make as much money by any means as speedily as possible,'' he said. ''It is corruption in China that shapes our real fears . . . the effect of corruption in China, in China's present stage of development, is something new. ''I know of government servants involved in commercial China trade and I know in some cases that they are involved in China-related corruption. ''I know of businessmen involved in China trade and I know in some cases they are also involved in China-related corruption.'' Mr Buckle expressed disappointment in the Judiciary for handing out sentences that ''could be tougher'' to people convicted of corruption in the private sector. He said people convicted of corruption who worked in the public sector could expect tougher sentences as a matter of course than those employed in private industry. However, he fell short of calling for parity in sentencing between the two groups. ''The Judiciary tends to take a different view of private-sector corruption,'' Mr Buckle said. He said tougher sentencing could help the task of the ICAC because of its deterrence value, but it was not feasible to have fixed sentences for certain crimes, no matter who was involved. He said people in the public sector who were convicted received sentences based in part on their abuse of public office. About 55 per cent of complaints of corruption received by the ICAC relate to the private sector. The ICAC was unable to supply any information relating to the sentencing of people from the private and public sectors. However, in April, two civilian drivers involved in a long-running cross-border luxury car smuggling racket were sentenced to terms of two years for one man and nine months for the other. Both admitted conspiracy to export unmanifested cargo and one of them pleaded guilty to offering advantages to public servants. Four Customs Department officers, who were also found guilty of participating in the same car-smuggling scam, received sentences of between 18 months and six years. Mr Buckle has about 10 months left before he retires as head of operations and Deputy Commissioner. He said he expected to be replaced by a local officer.