Shaping Youth Moral Identity: A Case Study on the ICAC‘s Beautifully Complex and Robust Long-Term Integrity Education Program

This article only summarizes relevant portions of my master’s thesis. There are existing pre-conditions in the case of Hong Kong that set the stage for the ICAC to be successful – for example, adequate rule of law, strong political will (and adequate funding for their programs), trust in public servants, and press and other freedoms. This research was limited in scope and did not test the efficacy of Hong Kong’s youth education program.

How does someone decide to engage in corrupt behavior? And why?

Typical answers to this question do not provide answers for long-term, strategic policy planning, to reduce corruption over time. This research searches for successful long-term anti-corruption reforms and strategies, and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (“ICAC”) in Hong Kong, with their famous three-pronged approach (of enforcement, prevention, and education) came to mind.

It is easy to equate Hong Kong and the ICAC’s success to its strengths in the three-pronged approach. However, as recently as the 1970s, citizens lamented and resigned to paying “tea money” regularly to smooth daily transactions (Chan, 2005, pp. 96, 97), with the police itself being a guilty party to this. In 1974, the Independent Commission Against Corruption was born out of a tumultuous time of police scandals and wide scale protests by youth. The ICAC Ordinance, which outlines the ICAC’s statutory duties, includes Section 12, in which the Commissioner is mandated to “educate the public against the evils of corruption” and “enlist and foster public support in combatting corruption” (Legislative Council of Hong Kong, 1974).

While the education and public support mandates sound simply like rallying the public to one’s cause, the reality is much more complex and challenging. As a former Commissioner of the ICAC noted, “Anti-corruption is concerned with upholding a value, a value that says bribery is wrong and is a serious criminal offense” (de Speville, 2016, p. 117). With Section 12 of the ICAC Ordinance, the ICAC Commissioner is tasked with changing the moral fabric of the population, its citizens’ attitude toward corruption, and instilling values that corruption is wrong.

A major shift needed to take place in the culture and mindset of the people in Hong Kong during a time when corruption was commonplace (Chan, 2005) (Quah, 2011). Not only would ICAC need to win over the hearts and minds of Hong Kong citizens, but also build and foster trust in the ICAC (Chan, 2005, p. 104). Citing Clark’s comparative research between Chicago and Hong Kong’s anti-corruption movements, Skidmore noted that if a “moral climate can be created then so much greater will be the prospects for controlling corruption. Even where there is a measure of popular disapproval this will have little impact on actual behaviour if this disapproval is not given institutional expression and full support by top officials.” (1996, p. 123)

Could the ICAC create a moral climate in Hong Kong intolerant to corruption?

While adult education and reform played a more critical role in the early days of the Commission, as society’s culture began to change, the needs of the adult population inevitably shifted from education to confirmation or reinforcement. To make sustainable changes for the future, the ICAC needed to ensure future generations were educated from the start. Creating future generations of moral and ethical individuals without the propensity for corruption cannot be achieved through something as simple as one-hour classroom lectures. Through the years, the ICAC and their Youth and Moral Education Office (“YMEO”) have developed a robust education campaign centered around Hong Kong’s youth. While most research on the ICAC’s success focuses on its three-pronged approach, or the strength of its community outreach, my thesis argues that an often-overlooked success factor for Hong Kong is the education component – specifically, youth education.

The ICAC’s youth education program is a multidimensional, sophisticated approach to long-term corruption prevention. The YMEO adopted a values-based approach to its youth education and outreach, which centered around the ICAC’s four core values – honesty, fairness, self-discipline and responsibility (ICAC Youth and Moral Education Office, 2019, p. 7). The core values are integrated into the levels of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development and aligned with the Education Bureau’s strategic plans and annual curricula. Educational resources, including lesson plans, workbooks, and suggested activities, are developed in line with the theorized capacity of the youth’s behavioral development during that particular age (ICAC Youth and Moral Education Office, 2019, p. 8). Kohlberg’s original hypothesis suggested moral development was a continuous process throughout one’s life (Cherry, 2019), and the ICAC has similarly adopted this continuous learning approach.

In Kohlberg’s pre-conventional level, children under nine have not yet internalized their sense of morality (Vinney, 2019) and seek to do the right thing to avoid punishment (Vinney, 2019). Therefore, ICAC concentrates its educational focus during these years on building a strong foundation of moral values into children, so that punishment can be avoided (IC3, Appendix B). In this age group, the dissemination of values is mostly achieved through the character and cartoon series of Gee-dor-dor, the flying rabbit (ICAC Youth and Moral Education Office, 2019, p. 12). The concept of bribery is also introduced in an episode through a cheer-leading competition, where someone bribes the judge with toys and foods in order to win (, 2004). While Gee-dor-dor, the ideal hero, generally does the right thing, his friends often do the opposite (IC3, Appendix B), which in turn, causes them to suffer some kind of punishment (ICAC Youth and Moral Education Office, 2019, p. 12). In line with Kohlberg’s first stage, children understand that punishment is a consequence of their bad behavior. Being more than just cartoon characters, Gee-dordor could be influencing children’s moral development on a subconscious level.

The next level of Kohlberg’s moral development, where most adolescents and adults reside, is conventional morality, where individuals begin to internalize their sense of morality (Vinney, 2019). The focus becomes how to maintain social order and obey laws (Vinney, 2019), while also respecting authority and fulfilling one’s duty to a prescribed group, i.e. family, community or society (Cherry, 2019). A marked shift occurs, where the individual adheres to a prescribed framework to stay within the broader society’s status quo. Because Kohlberg theorized that conventional morality aligns with the end of primary school and the full duration of secondary school (through age 18), conceptually the need for an adolescent to maintain a societal status quo and ultimately fit in makes sense. During these years, ICAC’s lessons focus on the “evils of corruption, anti-corruption [legislation, and] ethical decision making” (ICAC Youth and Moral Education Office, 2019, p. 9). It is during this time, around the age of 14, where ICAC’s lessons introduce the words bribery and corruption (IC3, Appendix B), within the context of the three ordinances that govern anti-corruption legislation in Hong Kong.

According to Kohlberg, only 10-15% of the population are capable of the abstract reasoning required to arrive at post-conventional moral development (Vinney, 2019). Individuals at the post-conventional level begin to question whether what they see around them is necessarily good (Vinney, 2019) and develop their own principles of morality, regardless of whether they are in conflict with the law (McLeod, 2013) (Vinney, 2019). Students are reached through a Personal Ethics Module, integrated into the tertiary school curriculum (ICAC Youth and Moral Education Office, 2019, p. 26). The reflection-based curriculum feeds back into Kohlberg’s post-conventional level of development, where issues individuals face often reside in a gray area. A strong foundation of moral values should serve as a guide to them when encountering ethical dilemmas.

The YMEO works alongside the ICAC’s Communications Department to disseminate the ICAC’s messaging. Recognizing the trend of social media is a strength of ICAC. As stated by a Senior Community Relations Officer for ICAC, “The rapid technological advancement and rise of new and social media have brought unprecedented changes to the pattern of peoples’ behaviour in reception of information in the modern society” (Leung, 2017). The ICAC recognized that in order to deliver their message to the public, they needed a different messenger other than themselves. Therefore, in conjunction with their design partners, the ICAC developed proprietary characters to disseminate the core values to the youth market. Each character has a unique personality and different perspectives. This include Gee-dor-dor and friends, Greedy Kin (a sarcastic, anti-hero on Instagram), and iSir (a YouTube animated character). Additionally, ICAC also partners with local celebrities for interviews on values-based topics, like perseverance, working hard, and chasing your dreams. While the ICAC engages via social media, it is also the creative force behind ICAC Investigators, a television drama series based on their actual cases.

Existing research shows a connection between what people see on television and how it affects their identity and decision-making capabilities. The process that a child undergoes to build his personality is active and constantly changing to the stimulus around him (Faber, 2009, p. 77). While children’s personalities are shaped by those close to them, Faber suggests that the relativity of the word “close” could also suggest close relationships developed with their favorite television character (Faber, 2009). Therefore, it could be inferred that the morality Gee-dor-dor and the ethical decisions made during the course of their adventures could be shaping the broader personality of the child. Through one’s identification with Gee-dor-dor, the discrepancy between the child’s concept of his actual self and his ideal self (as portrayed by Gee-dor-dor) narrows (Faber, 2009, p. 4). Giving a child a strong moral character to look up to could influence his emulation of that personality and desire to be similar to the ideal self or hero. The child could be in the beginning stages of formulating his own identity, or the identity of his ideal self. A similar comparison can be made with the more mature themed ICAC Investigators. As described by David C. Donald, Professor of Law at Chinese University of Hong Kong, “The series … does for Hong Kong’s ICAC and its struggle against corruption much of the same work that the James Bond films and Mission Impossible performed for the Cold War or Fox Television’s 24 performed for the post-9/11 fight against terrorism.” (2013, p. 80)

ICAC is able to reach a wide audience of young adults and adults through this modern and unique pedagogy (Donald, 2013, p. 80).

At a basic level, ICAC Investigators appeals to the individuals’ sense of community by bringing localization and the context of Hong Kong’s own corruption cases to the viewer. Being based on actual cases provides a sense of familiarity and connection between the viewer, the series, and the city of Hong Kong (Donald, 2013, p. 80). By localizing the context of the series, a sense of self and one’s place within the community is created (Lewis, 2011). The series and its portrayal of ICAC reinforces the maintenance of social order, one’s duty to his community, and the respect that individuals should show towards authority, in line with Kohlberg’s conventional level (Vinney, 2019).

The psychosocial development that occurs in adolescents can be influenced and defined by the various types of mass media, as they explore “their possible roles in adult society” (Faber, 2009, p. 82). There is an identification with the archetypes of the fictional characters themselves that occurs.

Drawing on archetype theory, Carl Jung believed that “the unconscious recognition of any such image in a person’s daily life would lead to a numinous or powerful emotional recognition” (Faber, 2009, p.8). In the case of ICAC Investigators, this emotional recognition is intended to be the recognition of one’s self, in the shoes of either the protagonist, who reached a crossroads with a moral dilemma, was tempted into corrupt behavior, and then suffered the consequences of that behavior.

It does not come as a surprise that much of our “identities and world views come from popular culture” (Faber, 2009, p. 39). What is truly unique is an anti-corruption commission’s use of popular culture and media, interwoven with its education resources, to help shape an individual’s sense of self and identity through self-reflection.


The youth are our future. Throughout a Hong Kong citizens life, they have been brought up in the values-based education system that ICAC supports. From childhood through adulthood, they are given strong role models to reflect on and emulate, and are encouraged to make the determination of, “What kind of person do I want to be?” By utilizing theories of moral development, the ICAC shapes and guides an individual as they are behavior and moral identity begins to develop. Theories on the causes of corruption are intertwined, both in the IACA-developed education curricula, as well as within the communities the ICAC supports. Through the use of both traditional and social media, the ICAC also creates various points of self-reflection for the individual throughout his life. Both inside and outside the classroom, youth learn about anti-corruption and integrity through lessons on doing the right thing. While the ICAC’s youth-directed anti-corruption programs are not the only reason Hong Kong has been successful in its fight against corruption, it is a significant factor in the long-term sustainable success of its anti-corruption agenda. The youth are the future.

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