Tea Leaf Nation

Hong Kong Activists Fear State Snooping

Pro-democracy protesters believe surveillance is now an unfortunate fact of life.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

HONG KONG — “My phone was tapped for the first time probably in 1989. For years, I’d hear strange clicking sounds in my calls,” said Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, a co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), one of the leading pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong and one of several groups behind recent pro-democracy protests that have shut down portions of the city over the past two months. Chu had been actively involved in the Hong Kong-based “Operation Yellowbird” to smuggle Tiananmen dissidents out of China in the early 1990s. “It’s started again in recent years as I prepared for Occupy Central,” he told Foreign Policy. “But what can you do about it?”

Wiretapping is not an unusual experience for pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong. Many here speak of strange interference, frequent dropped calls, and the eerie repetition of one’s own voice from the other end of the line. Calls also may take a long time to connect. “Sometimes you can’t get through in the first few dials,” said Tanya Chan, a lawyer and politician, who told FP her wiretapping experience began eight years ago when she started her career in politics. “I’ve been tapped for so long that I forgot what a normal phone call sounds like.”

“The sound is different — like I’m underwater — and it’s usually more obvious two months before annual protests or important events such as visits by Chinese government officials,” said Tommy Cheung, leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), another group that spearheads the protests. “I think I’ve gotten used to it, but that doesn’t make covert surveillance acceptable.”

In Hong Kong, covert surveillance including wiretapping, bugging rooms, and monitoring email is regulated by the Interception of Communications and Surveillance Ordinance, which came into effect in 2006. “The ordinance came about because it was discovered that for years and years, the law enforcement agencies had been conducting covert operations,” explained Hong Kong lawyer Gladys Li. “There was virtually nothing which protected ordinary citizens from such activities.”

But the law’s protection is far from complete. When it was debated in the Hong Kong legislature in 2006, lawmakers considered to be pro-Beijing defeated all 200 amendments introduced by the pro-democracy minority to limit the government’s surveillance power. During debate, Internet entrepreneur and lawmaker Charles Mok criticized the ordinance as “fraught with loopholes” such as its loose definition of “public security,” which provides the legal justification for surveillance, and the absence of a penalty for surveillance by public officers contrary to the ordinance.

Not surprisingly, it is difficult to find firm data on the extent to which authorities abuse their surveillance powers. In one of the few publicized incidents, a human rights group revealed that the city’s anti-graft agency had wiretapped lawyers’ conversations without authorization in 2007 and destroyed the records to cover it up; the Security Bureau responded that it was an “isolated” case. The oversight committee itself discloses few cases of self-reported noncompliance each year. But the committee can only review self-reported noncompliance by law enforcement agencies; and as Mok explained, there’s no penalty for unauthorized interception. Many activists and politicians actively involved in the pro-democracy movement appear to treat unauthorized wiretapping as a fact of life.

Authorities say they don’t see it that way. In a Dec. 3 legislative meeting, Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok refuted accusations that the Hong Kong government compiles blacklists of democracy activists and shares them with authorities outside Hong Kong. Lai said that the government complies with the law in handling confidential data of Hong Kong residents and that the protesters might have disclosed their personal data on social networking platforms.

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau did not respond to emailed inquiries from Foreign Policy about whether it has conducted unregulated electronic or in-person surveillance on democracy activists and politicians. A representative of the China liaison office in Hong Kong told FP, “I have never heard of such allegations and don’t know which Chinese official bodies in Hong Kong might be able to answer your questions.”

Wiretapping is not the only snooping that activists worry about. Internet surveillance is an invisible issue since users are not even aware that their personal data have been handed over to authorities. The Hong Kong Transparency Report, a project by a research team at the University of Hong Kong, found that in 2013 Hong Kong police made 4,557 user information requests, including for IP addresses and emails. The report found that “almost none” of the requests were issued under a court order, 2,800 requests were still granted.*

Then there’s old-fashioned in-person surveillance, which in some cases lies beyond the scope of legal regulation, since the ordinance only encompasses activities that involve surveillance devices. Several student activists with HKFS and Scholarism, who did not wish to be named, told FP that they have been followed. “But ultimately, you don’t know who these stalkers are,” said Daisy Chan, a former HKFS member who works with Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), an influential pro-democracy civil society group that also has been playing a key role in the protests. “I believe Chinese national security also spies on democracy activists. But it’s really hard to tell who the snoopers are, let alone avoid them.”

OCLP co-founder Chan Kin-man told FP that unknown men stationed in a remote bus stop across from his apartment monitored him around the clock in September, just before the protests broke out. “This is a lowly, unacceptable tactic that harms the rule of law,” said the 55-year-old sociology professor. “Hong Kong has become like China, where citizens are not protected by law and constantly face intimidation.”

Chan’s story is only the tip of the iceberg of stories about Chinese authorities tracking and intimidating pro-democracy activists. A 34-year-old activist who declined to be named out of concern for her safety told FP that Chinese national security found out about her secret visit to China this year “despite maximum security measures” she and her friends took. “We were caught before we even arrived at our destination. We were detained for six hours before being sent back to Hong Kong.” In another incident, Kelvin Cheung, a 43-year-old low-profile volunteer at OCLP, said that Chinese officials visited his mainland cousin in June with “a thick pile of papers” containing Cheung’s personal information and asked to see him.

In response, democracy advocates avoid discussing sensitive issues on the phone, use encrypted chat services, and leave their phones behind during meetings. “But information still gets leaked,” said Johnson Yeung, a CHRF participant. “There’s definitely infiltration, but because we can only raise suspicion and we’re an open-membership group, we can’t expel anyone. Mutual trust is certainly hurt when people become paranoid about infiltration. All we can do is limit the scope of information discussed in meetings.” Other groups forming the backbone of OCLP hold a similar attitude, as members shrugged off the question of countersurveillance measures. “If snoopers want to spy on us, they’ll find a way anyway. Our campaign has always been transparent, so we don’t spend much energy in fending them off,” said Doris Fu, a law student and core member of OCLP.

But a looming question is what the Hong Kong and mainland governments might do with the vast information collected through surveillance. Low-profile protesters have been denied entry into mainland China, leading outraged activists to ask the Hong Kong government whether it has shared private information with Chinese authorities. Chinese-language media have reported that an intelligence center in Shenzhen, the Chinese metropolis just across the border from Hong Kong, has compiled a blacklist of Hong Kong democracy activists.

For activists with a public profile, threats are already common. Two OCLP “die-hards” with business ties in China quit the campaign early this year due to alleged political pressure from Beijing. Pro-democracy academics have been targets of death threats or other intimidation. This week, university students reportedly received calls warning them against running for positions in student governments, which together form the politically influential HKFS.

To be sure, the privacy of communication and the freedom of speech of Hong Kong’s people are protected by the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. But prior to the ordinance, those protections meant little in practice. Now it seems the shield the ordinance had been structured to provide is eroding. “I’ve become a little paranoid. Sometimes I would turn around and see if anyone was following me, but I could never be sure if the suspicious person was really an intelligence officer,” said Jackie Hung, a veteran activist now working in a pro-democracy Catholic organization that is also involved in the protests. “For a while, I couldn’t even trust my husband, who has a wide circle of friends and doesn’t pay attention to what he tells people. The self-monitoring and mistrust is frightening.” But Hung has found one way to cope: “Like other activists, I just learned to grow used to it.”

*Correction Dec.5, 2014: Hong Kong Transparency Report is the name of the University of Hong Kong venture. A previous version of this article called it the Hong Kong Transparency Project, which is another appellation it occasionally uses but which is not its official name. The report issued by that organization states that “almost none” of the police requests for user information were issued under a court order, not none as previously written. In addition, a representative of the China liaison office in Hong Kong spoke to an FP contributor; the representative did not email her. The article has also been updated to clarify that Rev. Chu Yiu-ming and Chan Kin-man are co-founders of OCLP. (Return to Reading)

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