Fri, Dec 19, 2014 - Page 9 News List

How China spies on Hong Kong’s democrats

Hong Kong police inadvertently arrested a Chinese surveillance team hounding a pro-democracy legislator, while student activists report having been spied on even from within a hotel where they were staying in Taiwan

By David Lague, Greg Torode and James Pomfret  /  Reuters, HONG KONG

Illustration: Mountain People

James To (涂謹申) was growing uneasy. When the veteran Hong Kong Democratic Party legislator looked in his rear-view mirror, two silver Mercedes-Benz sedans kept appearing behind his gray Volvo.

For almost a week, one or the other was behind him on his daily commute. When he arrived at the Hong Kong Legislative Council building, the following car would park nearby and wait, sometimes for hours. With his suspicion hardening, on Aug. 11, To complained to the police, reporting the registration numbers of the two Mercedes in his detailed statement.

The next morning, he pulled out of his home in the largely working-class neighborhood of North Point on Hong Kong Island and headed to work. At the bottom of the street outside his building, he glanced in the mirror to see an unmarked car pull sharply into the path of a silver Mercedes behind him. Several men got out of the unmarked car. He kept driving, assuming the police had moved fast to intercept his tail.

He was right. Later, police informed him they had arrested two men and seized two Mercedes, To said. What he did not know was that the police had inadvertently foiled a surveillance operation being run by China. Just ahead of the biggest pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, the police had stumbled into a Chinese internal security operation aimed at monitoring the activities of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, according to two people with knowledge of the surveillance.

The Chinese intelligence services have long been suspected of running covert operations in Hong Kong, but this has now been confirmed for the first time, with one of their surveillance teams taken into custody. The pair was part of a team watching To, according to people familiar with the operation.

Other teams have been assigned to track key figures in the pro-democracy movement and critics of Beijing’s rule in the territory — with the aim of uncovering compromising information, they said.

The arrested pair were quickly released without any public announcement. Police declined to divulge their identities to reporters.

Retired senior Hong Kong police officers and managers at private security companies say Chinese intelligence services have been recruiting former Hong Kong police to assist in political surveillance operations. Recruiters identify former officers with surveillance training and pro-Beijing sympathies. They say that more than 20 of these retired officers have been assigned to surveillance teams working alongside mainland agents.

One of the Mercedes sedans that To reported to police is registered to a local resident who says he is a Hong Kong public servant. The man said he played no role in the surveillance.

The other car was displaying a license plate that is not registered to any vehicle, according to records of the Hong Kong Department of Transport.

News of the Chinese spying operation comes as many Hong Kong residents are already chafing at China’s tightening grip on their territory. The fear: Beijing is eroding the wide-ranging personal freedoms and independent law enforcement enshrined in the “one country, two systems” formula under which they have been governed since British rule ended in 1997.

Pro-democracy legislators, academics and political activists worry that Hong Kong is becoming more like mainland Chinese cities, where the internal security services join forces with the police to crush dissent.

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