Spy city with a colourful history

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 23, 2013 

There is plenty of blood at Gage Street, just minutes from the Mid-Levels escalator in Central.

Leg, loin, liver, kidney, and tongue swing from evil-looking hooks at the butchers' stalls in the street market, popular with housewives and maids. Those faint of heart can grab a stool at the cha chaan teng, famous for its milk tea among tourists, next door.

Few, however, know that blood of a different sort was spilled on this short street 112 years ago.

At 6pm on Jan 10, 1901, four assassins sent by the Qing government stormed into 52 Gage Street.

Yeung Kui Wan, then tutoring students at home, strove to protect his head with a dictionary. It did not matter. The quartet pumped bullets into his head and chest.

Thus marked Hong Kong's first known political assassination. The 48-year-old teacher was a close ally of revolutionary leader Sun Yat Sen in his plans to overthrow the Qing dynasty. The first elected president of the Revive China Society, Yeung had helped organise two unsuccessful uprisings.

His murder at the hands of political enemies was the first - but not the last in this city.

Since the late 19th century, Hong Kong has had a reputation for being a teeming outpost of spies, assassins and provocateurs - one that has even inspired popular culture. Books have been written: for instance, John le Carre's 1977 spy thriller The Honourable Schoolboy, about a British spook sent to Hong Kong. Movies have been made, such as 2009's Bodyguards And Assassins, a fictionalised account of Sun Yat Sen's visit to Hong Kong when Qing assassins were dispatched to kill him.

"Hong Kong was and will continue to be a centre for such covert activities," muses historian Lee Kam Keung, associate director of Hong Kong Baptist University's Modern History Research Centre.

History, geography and politics all play a role in sucking Hong Kong into this whirlpool. Today, 16 years after its handover from British to Chinese rule, the city still seethes with talk of "black hands and black materials", although nothing quite matches the latest "spy story" that has fallen into its lap: Edward Snowden.

The former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) computer technician, citing Hong Kong's "freedom of expression", fled here last month with top-secret materials that he copied from the United States' National Security Agency. These purportedly show widespread hacking into computer networks within the US and other countries. Specifically, Hong Kong and China have been targets of the US since 2009.

In documents revealed last Friday, US prosecutors have charged him with theft of government property and two violations of the Espionage Act - and are reportedly seeking his extradition. Beijing and Hong Kong now have to decide how to proceed with this delicate matter; Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang yesterday would only say that it would deal with the case in accordance with the law.

Fratricidal spying

It is not the first time Hong Kong is caught in the cross-hairs of rival powers.

Such is the karma of a former British colony, perched on the underbelly of mainland China.

The city's earliest conspiracy arose in 1857, when Britain and Qing China were in the throes of the Second Opium War.

Cheong Ah Lum, the owner of Hong Kong's main bakery, sold arsenic-laced bread, precipitating widespread alarm that it was part of a Chinese poison plot to wipe out the British community although no evidence was ever found.

But Hong Kong - protected by British laws - became especially important as a base for Chinese revolutionaries from which to seek the help of foreign powers and plot to overthrow the Qing government.

They range from Hong Rengan, a Taiping Rebellion leader, to Sun Yat Sen, who established the Revive China Society at 13 Staunton Street, what Professor Steve Tsang calls "the most important forward base for staging uprisings". It also became an important training ground for assassins, adds the Nottingham University academic.

After the Qing government fell in 1911, Hong Kong was set for another battle - this time, between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang (KMT) as China plunged into civil war.

After the CCP emerged victorious in 1949, the KMT - hunkered down in Taiwan - used Hong Kong as a base to gather intelligence, infiltrate the government and attempt assassination. It operated several networks of secret agents under the control of Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of KMT leader Chiang Kai- shek, says Prof Tsang.

In 1949, a hit squad gunned down KMT leader-turned-CCP defector Yang Jie at his home at 302 Hennessy Road in Wanchai.

But the most audacious plot was an attempt to kill then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1955.

KMT operatives tapped on Hong Kong airport cleaner Zhou Zhu, 34, a debt-ridden gambler and womaniser, says Prof Tsang, drawing on information from PRC intelligence and British archives.

On April 11, Zhou Zhu planted a bomb on a chartered plane, the Princess Kashmir, at Kai Tak airport, from which Premier Zhou was to depart for Jakarta. The CCP got wind of it, and the leader and his ministers did not board though they allowed Chinese journalists to do so. All 11 perished.

The CCP did not stay idle either. Using the Xinhua news agency as a cover, it coordinated propaganda and intelligence activities in unions, schools and newspapers, while planting its spies in the Hong Kong government including John Tsang, then the most senior ethnic Chinese officer in the Hong Kong police. Among other activities, it incited the 1967 anti-colonial riots, believes historian Chi Kwan Mark of University of London.

Cold War, more heat

Hong Kong as an espionage hub grew in importance with the onset of the Cold War in 1947.

The US, which pulled out its embassy in China in 1949, viewed Hong Kong as a bulwark in its psychological warfare in the Far East. It placed its resources here, building one of its largest consulates in the world - attached with a CIA station, says historian John Carroll of Hong Kong University.

Hong Kong thus became the superpower's listening post for what was going on inside China.

The CIA, which ran secret agents, interrogated Chinese refugees, funded groups to provide aid and established academic entities like Union Research Institute to collect data. An information services unit was set up as a propaganda hub for the region, says Dr Mark.

Aggressive covert operations against China were, however, limited, except for the so-called "Third Force movement" during the Korean War. In an attempt to divert Chinese resources from the war, the CIA secretly recruited some people in Hong Kong, trained them on a Pacific island, and airdropped about 200 agents onto the mainland. Once parachuted into China, however, most of them were quickly killed or captured, says Dr Mark.

Meanwhile, the British established an intelligence gathering centre in Siu Sai Wan in 1947 - it was destroyed in the 1980s - although the colonial office was also careful not to engage in overt activities that would upset China.

Till today, speculation remains among Beijing commentators as to whether Hong Kong's last non-Chinese chief secretary Robert Ford was an MI6 agent, observes international relations academic Simon Shen of Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The Chinese did their own spying too. Isolated by the West, it needed to get outside information, says Dr Lee. Hong Kong was the easiest conduit.

In 2007, reports emerged that bugs were found in the government house used by the last British governor Chris Patten.

'Invisible hands'

With the end of the Cold War, the formalising of Sino-US ties in 1979 and the advent of modern technology which allows surveillance to take place from virtually anywhere in the world, physical cloak-and- dagger activities in Hong Kong have diminished.

But experts believe it stays key as a place to pick up intelligence, especially about China. Word is that the CIA station remains active, with the station chief for East Asia based here. The US consulate declined to comment for this article.

Notes Dr Shen: "Meeting informants in Hong Kong is still relatively free, whereas you would be watched on the mainland."

Another factor is Hong Kong is a safer place for spies: those caught get 14 years in jail here, compared to the death penalty in China.

The US' strategic interests here, says Dr Shen, includes supporting Hong Kong's democracy movement and working with the financial hub to stop the flow of monies to terrorist groups.

Certainly, Hong Kong today remains a hotbed of gossip about invisible hands that manoeuvre events behind the scenes.

A recent article in the Yazhou Zhoukan magazine, for instance, cited a "secret report from Beijing" about its suspicion that the Independent Commission Against Corruption has been infiltrated by British intelligence to undermine the Leung Chun Ying government.

Beijing commentators have long accused the US and Britain of interfering in local affairs with ulterior motives, such as in using Hong Kong as a base from which to plan a "colour revolution" in China. A WikiLeaks document that revealed an appeal from Democratic Party leader James To to the US for help in fighting "Beijing infiltrators" in his party has been cited as example. Mr To tells The Sunday Times he shares information with "many people" who ask for his insights.

On the other hand, Hong Kong's democrats have also raised concerns about being spied on by Chinese intelligence. A foiled 2009 plot to harm veteran democracy advocate Martin Lee gave rise to speculation that it was a warning shot from Beijing.

Such talk from both sides could be the product of fanciful imaginations and inflated egos. Prof Tsang, for one, is sceptical, pointing to how the US is "too busy" with other concerns to try to foment instability in Hong Kong.

But what is clear is that in today's world, gathering information is key. And to that end, Hong Kong offers rich pickings for spooks.

As the Snowden case shows, cloaks and daggers in Hong Kong have simply shifted online.

Additional reporting by Pearl Liu

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 23, 2013

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