Chinese Smuggling Rings Resurge

Despite tougher laws, Hong Kong's police are unable to stop illegal cross-border trade

SMUGGLING is resurging as a multimillion-dollar business between Hong Kong and mainland China just months after a crackdown temporarily disrupted the lucrative trade.Laden with TV sets and video players bound for China, fleets of bulletproof, armor-plated speedboats are again rocketing past slower Hong Kong police patrols - or deliberately ramming them. "There has been a resurgence of high-powered speedboat smuggling in coastal areas all along southeastern China," says Tong King-san, deputy director of Hong Kong's customs and excise department. "I don't think we'll ever stop it," says Superintendent John Thomson, a senior member of Hong Kong's Anti-Smuggling Task Force. "The epidemic is still in progress.... We just want to keep it manageable." The aggressive comeback of smuggling illustrates the growing challenges to law and order in Hong Kong as China prepares to take over the British colony in 1997. The territory is entering a vulnerable transition time as British military forces prepare to withdraw and leave Hong Kong's police in charge of security. "Obviously, uncertainty over 1997 is a big factor," says Chief Superintendent of Police Vince Chapman, asked about police morale and recruitment problems. "A lot of the guys will have to stay, come what may." The smuggling rings depend on two powerful forces: Hong Kong organized crime syndicates, or "triads," which organize and finance the rings, and corrupt Chinese mainland officials, who facilitate them, police here say. With networks reaching from executives in wingtips down to villagers in rubber sandals, some 20 triads run smuggling rings in the territory. Triads control companies that supply goods for smuggling, truckers who transport cargos to docks, and fishermen-spies on sampans who monitor police boat movements, police say. (See story, below.) Across the border, mainland Chinese authorities are tolerating or abetting the smuggling, and sometimes even clash with Hong Kong police. In one recent run-in, uniformed mainland Chinese forced Hong Kong police at gunpoint to abandon a late-night pursuit of smugglers in the colony's waters. The Nov. 19 incident alarmed Hong Kong legislators, sparking protests against Beijing. China's lenience toward smugglers essentially foiled a Hong Kong campaign last spring to halt their activities. Last April, Hong Kong outlawed the customized, 1,500 horsepower speedboats, confiscating dozens of them at a cost of millions to builders. New laws also hiked the maximum fine for smuggling 50-fold and increased the jail term from six months to two years.

Crackdown ignored The smugglers quickly relocated along the southern coast of China, and China dismantled an anti-smuggling group formed to assist Hong Kong's crackdown, police here say. Under Chinese law, goods smuggled into the country can be put on sale, with receipts theoretically going into the state treasury. Hong Kong's police commissioner in May persuaded China to return cars stolen from the colony, but so far Chinese authorities have relinquished only 22 of an estimated 500. The value of consumer goods smuggled between China and Hong Kong last year reached $6.4 billion, according to mainland estimates. Hong Kong shipped stolen luxury cars, electronics, and cigarettes; China sent antiques. The sheer magnitude of the illicit trafficking is daunting. Hong Kong agents have seized some $13 million worth of goods being smuggled so far this year, more than double last year's total. But in one night, smugglers can ship cargo valued at $5 million from a single loading point, Hong Kong police say. The shadowy cross-border trade also includes guns, drugs, criminals, and illegal workers smuggled in from China. An influx of Chinese guns into Hong Kong has caused gun prices to drop. The number of reported robberies with what police call "pistol-like objects" will rise 40 percent this year if current trends continue. Most of the guns brought in are the Chinese military's model 54. They are either stolen from mainland armories or sold to gun runners by members of the Army or police, according to Hong Kong experts. China claims the guns come from Vietnam, which used Chinese weaponry in the Vietnam War. Hong Kong crime gangs are also spiriting in mainland Chinese who commit crimes in the colony before sneaking back across the border. Hong Kong police often apprehend mainlanders for robberies and other crimes, but do not publicize a tally of them. Meanwhile, thousands of unskilled Chinese workers continue to enter Hong Kong illegally by land or sea each year, mainly in search of higher paying jobs. "The people who walk over or climb the fence are the 'low budget' [illegal immigrants], who come to work for a few months then go back to their villages," says Mr. Chapman.

High-tech detection As part of a gradual British military withdrawal, Chapman's 680-strong police detachment is taking over security on Hong Kong's border, with the final handover scheduled for October 1992. Aided by bicycles and sophisticated thermal imaging that can detect people at night, police estimate they catch a majority of Chinese illegal immigrants crossing by land. Yet China's ability to curb an exodus remains a concern for Chapman, who recalls an influx of 80,000 mainlanders in one week in 1962. China has failed to stop an estimated 40,000 Chinese from illegally moving into its restricted economic zone of Shenzhen on Hong Kong's border, he notes.

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