19 October 2019
The Snowden saga was a clear reminder that Hong Kong is a key hub for global espionage wars. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
The Snowden saga was a clear reminder that Hong Kong is a key hub for global espionage wars. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Cold facts about an espionage capital

The third installment of the Hong Kong crime-thriller movie Overheard has been a blockbuster, with box-office receipts topping HK$500 million. Espionage has always been a popular theme among local film-makers. Even in the real world, a silent and invisible spy war has always been present in the territory. Since the city’s return to Chinese rule, the activity seems to have only intensified.

A nondescript USB flash drive can turn out to be a voice recorder and a car key can in fact be a micro cam. The surveillance and monitoring devices can be easily purchased at stalls in flea markets in Sham Shui Po and are priced at less than HK$1,000 (US$129), Southern Weekend reports.

Corporate espionage is rampant in the world’s major trade and commercial hubs and Hong Kong is no exception. Local media reports say some firms bribe cleaning staff to plant wiretaps at the offices of their business rivals. Thus, many multinational banks and firms hire professionals to debug their places on a regular basis.

That’s also the reason why the Hong Kong Police Force will upgrade the existing Technology Crime Division to a new Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau this year to combat related technology crimes.

Nevertheless, what may raise not just a few eyebrows is the fact that these crimes are merely “shenanigans” compared with the more hidden spy wars waged between China and some Western countries in the territory.

Even as early as World War II, Hong Kong had become one of the three espionage capitals together with Lisbon and Casablanca. Now, the city is still on the very forefront of the underground rivalry.

Observers say Hong Kong’s unique legal and immigration systems have made the city a most ideal hub to collect and exchange sensitive and secret information. 

No visa is required for travelers from more than 100 countries and regions worldwide to enter Hong Kong. 

Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong recognizes dual nationality. Thus, if a British citizen who is also a permanent Hong Kong resident is found conducting espionage activities, the Hong Kong authorities do not have the right to deport him.

In the Edward Snowden saga a year ago, the American was able to enter Hong Kong conveniently and leave the territory of his own accord within his granted period of stay. The police couldn’t arrest him since he didn’t commit any crime locally, and most importantly, there is no legislation in Hong Kong that defines espionage as a crime.

The agents also take advantage of Hong Kong’s status as a world city and its close proximity to mainland China.

The Chinese government and Beijing loyalists in the city have long accused the United Kingdom and the United State of tapping phone calls and internet data as well as collecting secret information in this former British colony.

People’s Liberation Army Daily reported that when the Prince of Wales Building in Central was handed to PLA Hong Kong Garrison following the 1997 handover, Chinese soldiers found that the entire building was bugged and as a result, the building was virtually left unused during the initial years since the handover.

The same happened to the Governor’s House (now the Government House), the official residence of the colonial governors of Hong Kong and which now houses the city’s chief executive. Tung Chee-hwa, the first CE, refused to move into the house because he feared listening devices wouuld have been planted there.

The British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, once operated an intelligence gathering center in Siu Sai Wan on the Hong Kong Island, one of the largest of its kind in the Far East, to monitor wireless communications from China. The center was then demolished in the 1980s when the handover of Hong Kong became inevitable.

The pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po also noted last year that there were British spies embedded in the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency. British consular officials are also said to keep contact with the city’s leading pro-democracy advocates and lawmakers.

Snowden revealed last year that the US constantly monitors Hong Kong Internet Exchange, the territory’s vital internet exchange point located at the Chinese University. The former National Security Agency official also told the Guardian that the Central Intelligence Agency operates a bureau at the US Consulate-General, Hong Kong.

The consulate is one of the largest US foreign missions — larger than many US embassies — and it reports directly to the US Department of State. 

It is said that the consulate maintains a 300-500-strong staff and submits weekly reports on Hong Kong social and political issues to the State Department. The Hong Kong-based Mirror reports that the US Consulate convenes, on an irregular basis, roundtable discussions at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central with diplomats from other foreign consulates in the city to share information.

Also, the US Consulate’s Facebook account showed that Clifford Hart, the US Consul General, led a group of consuls from eight countries and visited grass root families in Sham Shui Po this May. Needless to say, this stirred some harsh criticism from Beijing, through its top diplomatic envoy in the city, of “interfering with Hong Kong’s internal affairs”.

It’s safe to say that Hong Kong can serve as an ideal foothold for foreign agents to collect confidential information, either military or political, from mainland China.

State-owned China News Service reported this May that a Chinese national was sentenced 10 years in jail for stealing and leaking photos and documents about military facilities in Guangdong province. For years the man had been making copies of the PLA’s internal circulars and sneaking into barracks to take photos.

It was reported that the all the documents were passed to a middleman stationed in Hong Kong and then forwarded to foreign agents for analysis. CNS noted in the report that more than 40 people in 20 provinces and regions in connection with the case were arrested by local national security bureaus.

There is no confirmed evidence about the activities of Chinese intelligence agents here, but Beijing has many resources and channels that it can tap — the liaison office, the office of the commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PLA Hong Kong garrison, state-owned enterprises operating in the city — to collect information and carry out secret operations.

iSunAffairs, a biweekly published during 2011-2013, once quoted a senior Hong Kong police officer as saying that a number of Chinese national security agents are embedded in the police and other disciplined services.

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer