Chinese Smuggling Rings Resurge despite Tougher Laws, Hong Kong's Police Are Unable to Stop Illegal Cross-Border Trade

Article excerpt

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. …