Hong Kong: Bad Cops


In November, responding to Hong Kong Gov. Christopher Patten's democratization efforts, Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Zhu Rongji implied that Beijing was having second thoughts about respecting the territory's autonomy after taking it over in 1997. "People cannot help but ask whether we still have to stick to the joint declaration between us, whether the important understanding and agreement that we have reached should go with the wind," he said.

Many Hong Kong business people discount such threats. They cite the growing economic interdependence between Hong Kong and southern China as a reason to be confident of a smooth transfer to Chinese rule. They note that some of Asia's most successful economies—Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea—have been built on less-than-democratic foundations. And they argue that the Cantonese (who include both Hong Kong and Guangdong natives) are a very "practical" people and will adjust to whatever system is imposed upon them.

This optimistic attitude underplays the costs of operating in a system that gives absolute power to its leaders and offers virtually no protection to the rights of its citizens. These costs are becoming increasingly apparent to residents of Hong Kong. In particular, a disturbing pattern of abuses by South Chinese police, including theft, corruption, and brutality, suggests practical reasons to worry about life after 1997.

During the last year, Hong Kong saw a dramatic increase in cross-border crime, tolerated and in some cases orchestrated by Chinese authorities. In September, there were 501 sightings of tai feis—the high-powered speedboats, illegal in Hong Kong, that are used to smuggle goods into China—up by more than 200 from the previous year. During a two-month period last year, some 200 Mercedes Benz automobiles disappeared from their garages or parking spaces in Hong Kong. In the third quarter of 1992 alone, 1,791 private cars were stolen, compared to 1,298 for all of 1991. This is an increase of 924 percent over the same period in 1991.

Most, if not all, of the cars are being taken to China, where they can command prices as high as HK$6 million (about $771,200). It is widely assumed that mainland officials are behind the smuggling. They are often spotted behind the wheels of luxury vehicles, and it is difficult to imagine how smugglers could move back and forth between the two territories so frequently without the collusion of Chinese authorities.

One former mainland police officer has confirmed this assumption with his account of Shenzhen police operations. After fleeing China in July, Officer Gao Peiqi told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that car theft was very popular with the Shenzhen police. During four years of service, he said, he had personally arrested seven police officers in Shenzhen—five for car theft and two for smuggling. In at least one case, his superiors instructed him not to investigate the officer involved.

Gao said smuggling was especially lucrative for police in southern China. If they were not directly involved themselves, they would tax the smugglers, keeping a portion of the money and handing the rest to the local authorities, disguised as a fine. Recently, there have been reports of Chinese police impounding stolen vehicles at the border, only to auction them off later—most likely to the same smugglers who brought them in.

The Royal Hong Kong Police have asked the Chinese Public Security Bureau to help locate the stolen vehicles, but to date only a handful have been returned. In an effort to reduce demand for stolen cars in China, Hong Kong's Crown Motors launched an advertising campaign across the border last year, warning potential buyers that they will not be able to find spare parts for Lexus cars on the mainland and that the cars only run on unleaded gasoline, which is also unavailable there. So far, the campaign has done little to deter the smugglers, who have now added spare parts to their shopping lists.

Far from assisting Hong Kong police in stemming the tide of stolen vehicles, Chinese security officers have gone so far as to enter Hong Kong waters to aid smugglers. On September 15, for example, Chinese officials on a boat inside Hong Kong waters aimed their rifles at a Hong Kong police vessel that was chasing a speedboat. Later that month, Chinese security officers boarded a Hong Kong Marine Police vessel that had come to the aid of a fishing boat boarded by the Chinese in Hong Kong waters. The security officials jumped onto the police boat, pointed AK-47 rifles at the Hong Kong officers, and ripped the film from the cameras the officers had used to record the event.

Chinese officials have also taken to intercepting Vietnam-bound vessels carrying cars, electronics, and other goods in both Chinese and Hong Kong waters. The vessels are typically taken to a Chinese port and relieved of their cargo. Chinese officials have to date acknowledged only one such incursion into Hong Kong waters, but Hong Kong police have reported at least seven. With less than five years to go before Hong Kong comes under Chinese control, mainland authorities are already making it clear that they have no compunction about violating the territory's sovereignty.

Hong Kong residents got a particularly vivid look at the modus operandi of mainland officials last August. Police in Shenzhen savagely beat people who had been standing in line for hours to buy application forms to purchase shares on the city's stock exchange. Police wielded batons, wooden planks, and cattle prods against people whose only crime was to have been pushed forward by a surging crowd. Television footage of the incident provoked a popular outcry in Hong Kong.

Despite these ominous developments, Hong Kong's business community continues to insist that harmonious relations with the mainland can best be achieved by avoiding provocative reforms. Business leaders have urged Gov. Patten to water down his proposal for greater democracy because it has angered Beijing. They assert that the people of Hong Kong are more concerned with stability and prosperity than they are with democracy.

Yet opinion polls show that Patten has the overwhelming support of the Hong Kong populace. Many in Hong Kong have already discovered what a "harmonious relationship" with an all-powerful bully means: They're installing car alarms.

Bretigne Shaffer is a writer based in Hong Kong.