Hong Kong’s secret world of spies

  • Themes: China, Intelligence

The strange case of three men charged with spying for Hong Kong is the latest case in the city's rich history of spies, surveillance and repression.

Hong Kong viewed through barbed wire.
Hong Kong viewed through barbed wire. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

There was an intriguing line in the British Government’s official statement of 14 May 2024 about three men who have been arrested and charged in London with offences under the UK’s National Security Act of 2023. It read: ‘The foreign intelligence service to which the charges relate is that of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.’

Intriguing, to say the least, because nobody knew that Hong Kong, a British colony that became a Special Administrative Region of China in 1997, had such a thing as an intelligence service. If it exists, there is no public record of it being established.

Hong Kong does have a rich history of spies, surveillance and repression. Its role as an entrepôt of trade and ideas drew gun-runners, printing-press revolutionaries and shadow bankers from the late Qing dynasty of the 19th century to the eve of the Second World War and into the era of the China-watchers captured in John Le Carré’s novel The Honourable Schoolboy, which opens, as all good tales should, with a drinking bout in the Foreign Correspondents Club.

To dig into the history of eavesdropping and counter-espionage in Hong Kong is to uncover some unscrupulous British behaviour in the service of the Crown. If tackled fairly, it also reveals a steady progress towards accountable public service, legal oversight (even if exercised from London) and respect for the rights of the public. It is also fair to say that all of these have been jettisoned since 1997 to a chorus of praise from Communist Party sympathisers, who never lose a chance to rail against the iniquities of the colonial period.

The British restored a rough-and-ready form of law and order when the Japanese occupiers of Hong Kong surrendered in August 1945. The governor, Sir Mark Young, returned under the guns of the Royal Navy, his surviving officials and policemen came out of imprisonment, and a large number of local Chinese officers came back to the ranks.

The police force was down to fewer than 2,000 men when a formidable commissioner, Duncan McIntosh, took over in 1946, bringing his experience from Ireland and Malaya to subdue a chaotic territory packed with refugees and ruined by war. Triad gangsters roamed at will, staging gunfights in Kowloon. Rival Communist and Nationalist agents waged their own twilight battles.

Slowly, the authorities got the upper hand. The courts re-opened and a functioning legal system was soon in place. The administration recruited men from the defunct Shanghai Municipal Police and brought in officers from Britain and its Commonwealth allies; it was not unusual to hear the accents of Sydney or Durban in local police stations long after the end of British rule.

The institutional memories and files from Shanghai were a rich source of intelligence on crime and political activity, vital because so many of the Shanghai elite and underworld fled to Hong Kong after the Communist victory of 1949.

Within a decade Hong Kong was on its way to becoming one of the safest cities in Asia, although the police always carried guns and capital punishment was in force until the last execution on 16 November 1966, when Wong Kai-kei, aged 26, was hanged in Stanley Prison. Thereafter, the main policing problem was the force’s own corruption.

Alongside the uniformed branch the British developed a sophisticated civilian apparatus to counter subversion. It drew on tactics learned in Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya; in this case without resorting to military measures. The Special Branch’s mission was to fight organised crime, to watch the underground Chinese Communist Party network and to keep an eye on Iron Curtain nationals flitting through the colony, where Britain’s intelligence agencies maintained listening stations to eavesdrop deep into China and beyond.

A second stream of information flowed back to the governor from the Customs and Immigration department. This was little known but it was a seam of data on who was going to and from China as well as for spotting passers-through: it was how the British governor learned of the presence on his territory of a senior Chinese figure, Liao Chengzhi, who proved to be key to future negotiations and was, perhaps, surprised to see the governor step out of an unmarked car on his doorstep at a safe house on the Peak. Discretion ran in the veins of the colonial civil service.

It also recruited local officers with a high level of trust. This principle ran throughout the colony’s security forces. When the last governor came to dinner at my home in 1997 he was preceded by a polite young Chinese plain-clothes officer packing a gun, who scouted the apartment block and sat warily in the kitchen throughout the evening. But those who placed their trust without insurance were sometimes disabused.

Suspicion ran in the veins of the old service hands. In 1977 they set up a secret Standing Committee on Pressure Groups which ordered the Special Branch to infiltrate such subversive organisations as the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the teachers’ union and a mildly critical polling group. It warned that these were ‘an ideal breeding ground for discontent and trouble-makers’, although it grudgingly concluded that ‘they do not seem to have had the effect of subverting the population so far’.

Exposed by the New Statesman in 1980, the committee was disbanded after an outcry in 1982 and all its files were destroyed. As late as 1995 the colonial security secretary, Peter Lai, had to reassure legislators that ‘no such group or committee now exists’. In the same year the Special Branch was merged with the Crime (A1) Division to make a combined Crime and Security Department. Pressure on servants of the Crown was bound to rise as the 1997 handover drew near and Margaret Thatcher had approved the issuance of 50,000 British passports to key professionals, with the security services first in line, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. None the less there was a steady exodus of loyal officers to friendly places like the US, Canada and Australia.

The Communist Party did not need to bother with reassurance. It played on patriotism and menace to recruit its agents. A prime catch was the corrupt and greedy chief of the Immigration Department, Laurence Leung, who was mixed up with the Triads, owned a share in a horse-racing syndicate, held undisclosed investments in mainland China and had accepted almost $100,000 from a company owned by an adjudicator in immigration cases. The loss of sensitive personnel information exposed hundreds of police and immigration officers to Communist pressure. Leung failed an integrity check and Patten is said to have felt he was ‘rotten to the core’ but he was allowed to enjoy a comfortable retirement until his death at 67 in 2008, when the Chinese state media praised him as ‘honest and hard working’.

Infiltration on the scale and depth revealed by the Leung case was the prime Chinese modus operandi until the British left and the government of the new Special Administrative Region, approved by Beijing, took over. The hydra-headed Chinese security apparatus already had a bridgehead of operatives inside the ‘disciplined services’ in Hong Kong reporting to its military, civilian and diplomatic wings.

The regime then centralised its political functions in a Liaison Office and the Ministry of State Security took the lead in mastering the complicated interface between foreign and domestic intelligence operations in a global financial marketplace. Its remit was to build up influence across institutions and society. More than a million people migrated legally from the mainland to Hong Kong in the decades after the handover. Most of them spoke the local Cantonese dialect and many were encouraged to find jobs in government service. Soon the ranks were salted with people whose mentality was formed under the Communist system.

The people of Hong Kong revolted against their new overlords three times. In 2003, mass marches forced the Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, to drop a bill outlawing ‘subversion’. Eleven years later, more than a million people joined the Occupy Central campaign for democracy. In 2019, an attempt to pass legislation for extraditions to mainland China set off huge protests that turned into street violence. Each time the police were more brutal, the legal reprisals harsher, and the protests failed.

As the old rules in Hong Kong corroded, the new emperor in Beijing grasped it closer to his breast. Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 after a struggle at the top and spent his first years consolidating power and purging rivals. In 2020 he ordered a new National Security Law to be imposed on the restless city, where protests had been suppressed on the pretext of Covid-19 regulations.

The law created a new special police unit for national security cases. It had powers to search without warrants, to freeze assets, to intercept communications and to demand data from internet companies. A hotline and website were set up for informers. A dedicated team of prosecutors was established and the chief executive was empowered to pick suitable judges to sit in national security courts.

The remit of this police unit was worldwide because the National Security Law extended the scope of offences to those committed by anyone, anywhere against the state. It created de facto a force engaged in operations outside the territory of Hong Kong; a role without precedent in the colonial security apparatus. Shrill campaigns directed against offenders abroad promised bounties to informers and uttered threats to exiles, who complained of surveillance and harassment against them in democratic countries.

Alongside the new police unit and superior to it, the Chinese government set up a permanent Office for Safeguarding National Security, located in a nondescript tower above a traffic junction. Its first boss was an official who had won his spurs suppressing a village revolt in southern China. He had extraordinary powers in Hong Kong to direct his own team of mainland security agents who had legal immunity. They and their vehicles were not subject to inspection, search or detention by the Hong Kong police.

Somewhere in this web of competing agencies there is a decision-making fulcrum that determines which operations to run against overseas targets. It is a reasonable guess that the Ministry of State Security, which runs domestic and foreign intelligence operations, is the arbiter. The erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong makes it extremely unlikely that sensitive political calls with diplomatic consequences are made by local officials or police. If there is a Hong Kong intelligence service, its home address is in Beijing.


Michael Sheridan