International business executives rank Hong Kong as one of the least corrupt cities in the world. That reputation has been a factor in its economic success. But some 40 years ago, the city suffered from endemic corruption. On the United Nations International Day Against Corruption, VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Hong Kong on why the city is considered a model.

Vendors in this Hong Kong wet market call out to shoppers to buy fresh fish, meat and vegetables.   Business is brisk.

But some 40 years ago, gangs - known as triads -their police protectors and corrupt government officials terrorized markets like these, extorting money from hawkers in exchange for letting their stalls stay open.

Hong Kong people call it the "bad old days," when blatant bribery took place in nearly all aspects of life in the then-British colony.  

This woman has sold jade trinkets for more than 40 years.

"The triads harassed hawkers especially during the Chinese New Year when vendors want to have a better location for their stalls. So they have to pay a few dollars," she recalled.

Professor King Tsao, a corruption expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, witnessed blatant police corruption.

"I remember when I was a kid and I went to the wet market with my mom and I remember vividly there were some policemen - just passed by to patrol - and they collected cash, 10 dollars, from each hawker," he said.  "They were not worried that someone would witness it, report it. They thought that was part of their life, part of their jobs to do everyday to collect money."

With the police department corrupt, the public seemingly had no recourse for complaints. That is until 1973 when public anger erupted into mass streets protests. 

The British colonial government was forced to take radical steps, enacting strong anti-bribery laws, and creating an independent anti-corruption body - the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

Armed with unprecedented police-like powers to investigate, arrest suspects and seize assets, the ICAC quickly broke up police protection rackets and pursued corrupt government officials.

By the late 1970s, the ICAC says reports of corruption dropped by more than half.

Rebecca Li, an assistant director of the ICAC, says political will and public involvement were key to its success.

"The government has been giving the ICAC sufficient resources to carry out our work effectively," she said.  "We also have the necessary legal muscle in place.  Corruption is a highly secretive crime. Without the support and cooperation of the public in reporting corruption, then the ICAC wouldn't have been successful."

Initially, people were wary to report corruption to the ICAC but today, about three fourth of complaints are no longer anonymous.

The commission airs commercials to keep public vigilance.

Hong Kong University Professor Tsao and other corruption experts say Hong Kong's clean reputation has been one of the secrets of its economic success.

"Businessmen have the certainty to invest," said Professor Tsao.  "They know that their money will not go into the pockets of the government officials, just like some other Asian countries."

Tsao says other countries in the region facing endemic corruption could learn from Hong Kong.

He, however, notes that having the legal muscle, government and public support are not enough. He says Hong Kong also improved vital social services such as public housing and free education, something so scarce in the 1960s that people had to resort to bribery to get them.