Falling crime rate a Hong Kong success to celebrate

Bernard Chan hails statistics that show the city is remarkably safe

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

Last week, US president Barack Obama visited Chicago to discuss gun crime. There were 443 murders by firearms in that one city last year, and 506 murders in all. This is a city with 2.8 million people - fewer than half of Hong Kong's population.

In other words, if Hong Kong had Chicago's crime rates, we would have had around 1,200 murders last year.

In fact, Hong Kong had 27. This is from the 2012 data released by the police.

Very few cities in the developed world are as bad as certain neighbourhoods in Chicago, where the murder rate has been spiralling upwards. New York, with a population a bit larger than Hong Kong's, had just over 400 murders. So Chicago had a murder rate more than three times higher than New York's. But to put that in context for us, New York's murder rate was about 14 times Hong Kong's; London's was almost four times ours.

Hong Kong is not by any means crime-free. The 2012 statistics show that 75,000 crimes of all sort took place last year; they included thefts, drug offences, triad incidents, domestic violence, arson and deception.

After thefts (about 33,600) and criminal damage (7,300), deception was Hong Kong's most frequent crime, with about 6,900 cases. All three are non-violent offences.

Last year's robberies numbered just 600 or so. Of the 12,800 violent crimes reported last year, the majority involved intimidation, blackmail and assault.

What this tells us is that, although Hong Kong is not totally free of violent crime, it is a remarkably safe place to live in. Comparable communities in developed Asia, like Japan, Korea and Singapore, also have markedly lower crime rates than most Western societies.

One theory I have heard is that social pressure plays a role. According to this idea, people in Asia are more sensitive to the shame that a criminal brings on his family, friends, school or company. But the explanation could be something more down to earth, like the size of our police force, or simply the high population density, which must be a deterrent to many street crimes.

Social dislocation, inequality and poverty are known factors in crime. Media reports from Chicago, which has become a focus of national attention in the US, give a picture of a failed city; in some areas, joblessness is over 30 per cent and infant mortality rates are at developing-country levels. While Hong Kong has its share of deprivation and despair, the situation in Chicago is on a different level altogether. Poverty and crime are clearly feeding on each other, and it should be a reminder to us of the importance of tackling our own worsening social problems.

The really good news about crime in Hong Kong, however, comes from looking back not to last year but 10 years ago. The drop in many categories of offence since then is quite remarkable. Burglaries, for example, have halved; so, roughly, have the number of juveniles and young people arrested for crimes.

The number of mainland illegal immigrants arrested for crime has fallen to one-sixth of what it was 10 years ago, and the number of mainland visitors arrested for offences has also fallen, even though their numbers have increased massively.

Homicide numbers are usually so low that they can fluctuate wildly in percentage terms year on year, so we cannot read too much into them. But for the record, there were more than twice as many murders in 2002 as in 2012.

We constantly remind ourselves of Hong Kong's pros and cons: the rule of law, the freedoms and the low taxes versus the high rents, overcrowding and bad air. It is good to remember that our crime figures belong in the "pro" side.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council