Hong Kong crime spree casts shadow on city's safety

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - The kidnapping of a tycoon's granddaughter, an armed robbery and a spate of high-profile burglaries in the homes of Hong Kong's elite have stirred concern in a city ranked as one of the safest in the world.

Hong Kong, which has a population of 7.2 million, was rated the world's 11th safest city by the Economist Intelligence Unit this year. But in recent months, crime has been making a splash.

Police this week launched a city-wide manhunt for a gang of mainland Chinese who kidnapped the granddaughter of Law Ting Pong, the founder of the Bossini clothing store chain.

Although the 29-year-old was released unharmed, the crooks fled with HK$28 million (S$4.8 million) in ransom and HK$2 million (S$342,100) in cash and valuables from her home.

It was Hong Kong's first publicly-reported kidnapping since the mid-1990s abductions of Victor Li, the son of billionaire Li Ka Shing, and property tycoon Walter Kwok, both masterminded by Chinese gangster "Big Spender", who was later executed in China.

Other victims of the latest crime spree have included the city's top Indian and Australian diplomats, tycoon Cecil Chao - who offered HK$1 billion to any man who could wed his lesbian daughter - and Li Ka Shing, whose home was the subject of a burglary attempt, media have reported.

Last month, Hong Kong experienced its first armed robbery and shooting in more than a decade.

A suit-clad Mandarin-speaking man wearing a wig and surgical mask stole nine Patek Philippe watches worth HK$5.5 million from a shop in the upscale Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district and shot a clerk who tried to stop him.

The alleged gunman and accomplice were later arrested in the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, media reported.

Hong Kong police did not respond to a request for comment on the surge in crime. Last year saw a 24 per cent drop in reported burglaries to 2,700, according to official statistics cited by media.

Risk consultants did not pinpoint a specific cause. "It is difficult to tie patterns in crime to any single factor," said Nick Blank, of advisory firm Blackpeak, who has spent years as an investigator in China.

He listed several possible causes, among them the economic climate and the size of the police force.

Mike Groves, a former chief superintendent of Hong Kong police, said the uptick in burglaries was seasonal, but the kidnap incident was unusual.

"I would guess there are bigger things going on in the background, maybe business disputes," he added.