Is someone listening to your phone?

June 01, 2016 09:12
Who knows what the mainland's security agents lurking in Hong Kong's shadows are up to? Photo:

“I assume that the police are listening to my telephone calls,” the reporter said.

“So I say nothing that does not appear in my articles or is not already public information.

"If I have other things to say, I say them in person or use social media outlets that are more difficult to monitor.”

This journalist is not in Beijing, Pyongyang or Moscow but Hong Kong.

As it becomes increasingly a Chinese city, the space for civil liberties is shrinking.

The kidnapping in December of publisher and bookseller Lee Bo brought to public attention the work of the mainland's secret police in Hong Kong.

A few days later, the Global Times in Beijing – which is affiliated with the People’s Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece – reported that a "strong-arm department" (强力部門) had carried out the operation to defend "national security" against the "lies and distortions" contained in China-related books published in Hong Kong.

Many people believe the abduction was not the first since the 1997 handover of the city to China: others had taken place, but the individuals and families chose not to report them to the Hong Kong police nor the media, for the sake of their own safety.

The helplessness of the Hong Kong government and police to find out what had happened to Lee or help him shows the power relationship between them and the mainland security forces.

“Mainland police are monitoring pro-democracy politicians and activists, editors and journalists they consider hostile to China, as well as diplomats from the US, Britain, Taiwan and other countries who have information of interest,” Lee Ming, a business consultant, said.

“Hong Kong civil servants are caught in the middle.

"On the one hand, they are operating according to the rules and regulations bequeathed to them by the British.

"On the other, they have to follow the orders of their superiors, who are subject to Beijing.

"Things have deteriorated under C.Y. Leung, who is particularly subservient.” 

The Hong Kong government does not control the issuing of one-way visas from the mainland to the city; that power rests with the Ministry of Public Security, making it easy to send full-time security agents to Hong Kong.

From 2004 to 2015, holders of these one-way permits accounted for more than 60 per cent of the increase in Hong Kong’s population.

Among them are thousands of young, well-educated people who work in banks, think tanks and other companies.

It is easier for the ministry to recruit them as part-time informants than to hire Hongkongers.

The ministry’s task has been made easier by the large number of mainland companies setting up in Hong Kong.

They bring with them the Communist Party and reporting structures from the mainland.

Monitoring them is another task of the security agencies.

In the mainland, as in other countries, these agencies have a considerable degree of independence from the civil authorities; they do not need to report their operations to local governments – as was the case with Lee Bo.

However, they cannot operate in Hong Kong as openly as in the mainland.

There, the police can arrest and detain  as they wish journalists, lawyers, authors and other people they consider dissidents.

They tightly control information and access to the internet.

In its 2016 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House ranked China 83rd out of 168 countries and territories, with an overall score of 6.5 for freedom, 6 for civil liberties and 7 for political rights. One is the best score and 7 the worst.

In Hong Kong, by contrast, citizens are protected by a legal system that is still independent and enjoy free access to information, the internet and media that remains free despite the closure of newspapers and changes in ownership favorable to Beijing.

Another constraint on the central government is its desire to maintain Hong Kong’s status as one of the premier business centers in the Asia-Pacific.

This week, for example, NetSuite, the world’s leading provider of cloud-based business management software, announced it would set up its first data centers in the region next year, with Hong Kong and Singapore as the likely locations.

Such firms will not come if they believe their intellectual property is not secure here.

Because the security services operate in the shadows, it is hard to find out about them.

“A foreign friend found that his family was being followed,” one western executive said.

“He is not the target but the person he works for, a Chinese who supports the democratic movement.

"They want to collect information about him. Could he become a target for abduction?”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.