HONG KONG — Mr James To was growing uneasy. When the veteran Hong Kong Democratic Party lawmaker looked in his rear-view mirror, two silver Mercedes Benz saloons kept appearing behind his grey Volvo sedan.
For almost a week, one or the other was behind him on his daily commute. When he arrived at the Legislative Council building, the car following his would park nearby and wait, sometimes for hours. With his suspicion growing, Mr To complained to the police on Aug 11, reporting the registration numbers of the two Mercedes in his detailed statement.
he next morning, he pulled out of his home in the largely working-class neighbourhood of North Point on Hong Kong island and headed to work. At the bottom of the street outside his building, he glanced in the mirror to see an unmarked car pull sharply into the path of a silver Mercedes behind him. Several men got out of the unmarked car. He kept driving, assuming the police had moved fast to intercept his tail.
He was right. Later, Mr To said, the police informed him they had arrested two men and seized two Mercedes. What he did not know was that the police had inadvertently foiled a surveillance operation being run by mainland China. Just ahead of the biggest pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, the police had stumbled onto a Chinese internal security operation aimed at monitoring the activities of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, said two people with knowledge of the surveillance.
The mainland Chinese intelligence services have long been suspected of running covert operations in Hong Kong, but this has now been confirmed for the first time, Reuters has learnt, with one of the surveillance teams taken into custody.
The pair was part of a team watching Mr To, said the people familiar with the operation. Other teams have been assigned to track key figures in the pro-democracy movement and critics of Beijing’s rule in the city, they said, with the aim of uncovering compromising information.
The arrested pair was quickly released without any public announcement. The police declined to divulge their identities to Reuters.
Retired senior Hong Kong police officers and managers at private-security companies have said mainland intelligence services have been recruiting former Hong Kong police officers to assist in political surveillance operations. Recruiters identify former officers with surveillance training and pro-Beijing sympathies. They have said that more than 20 of these retired officers have been assigned to surveillance teams working alongside mainland agents.
Hong Kong law enforcement veterans would be valued for their local knowledge and contacts. As retirees, they are private citizens, which may mean there is a grey area in which they can operate, say legal experts. And, if one of these surveillance operations were exposed, the mainland security services could distance themselves from any fallout, said foreign diplomats who follow political events in Hong Kong.
For Mr To, it would be a bitter irony if former Hong Kong police officers were following him as part of a mainland-led operation. “In the past, they never trusted Hong Kong people,” he said, referring to Chinese officials. “So, now they trust Hong Kong people more in a sense.”
The one country, two systems agreement under which Hong Kong is governed does not explicitly prohibit China’s vast security and intelligence apparatus from operating in Hong Kong, but it does require any investigation and enforcement action to be carried out by local police and under the city’s laws.
These operations are headed by a bureau of China’s powerful Ministry of State Security (MSS), said security analysts, foreign diplomats and former Western intelligence officers. The MSS gathers information on political figures and potential threats from a wide network. It also collaborates with other Chinese security services and the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, an organ that aims to spread the party’s influence at home and abroad and which is active in the city of 7.2 million.
The MSS did not answer multiple calls seeking comment to its only publicly available telephone number.
Pro-democracy lawmakers, academics and political activists worry that Hong Kong is becoming more like mainland Chinese cities, where the internal security services join forces with the police to crush dissent.
They have said the surveillance has intensified over the past 12 months, as the city’s pro-democracy movement began planning for the campaign of civil disobedience that disrupted Hong Kong’s central business district for more than two months from late September. For China’s leaders, the upheaval presents one of the most serious popular challenges to Communist Party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen protests.