Hong Kongers Can’t Always Tell Cops From Comrades

Police infiltration is an old tactic—and not just by autocrats.

Paramedics remove an injured man suspected of being an undercover police officer and attacked during a protest at Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on Aug. 13.
Paramedics remove an injured man suspected of being an undercover police officer and attacked during a protest at Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on Aug. 13. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

It was a story for our febrile, super-connected times. But it was also a story from the past, one that recalled those far-off days when mole hunting was the sport of every revolutionary cadre.

When protesters occupying the Hong Kong airport thought they had detected an infiltrator in their ranks, they frisked him and found that the name on his passport matched that of an auxiliary policeman from the nearby city of Shenzhen. The demonstrators denounced Xu Jinyang, tied him up, roughed him up, and spent three hours wondering what to do next.

The consensus was to keep kicking him—a decision that might have led to his death, had it not been for the intervention of a local reporter, Richard Scotford, who shielded the accused man and warned the crowd that his ill treatment would be a propaganda coup for the mainland. He was right. Footage of these events became Exhibit A for commentators arguing that the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement was violent and reprehensible. Whoever Xu Jinyang was—security agent, undercover police officer, freelance troublemaker, or innocent bystander—he had done his bit for the Chinese Communist Party.

The impulses thrumming in this story are familiar to many with experience of the hot zone of radical politics. The circuit of infiltration, suspicion, accusation, violence, and confusion is a durable part of the relationship between the state and its most radical discontents. During phone interviews with survivors of the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s, I’m used to hearing them remark on unusual clicks or echoes on the line—an experience familiar to Chinese dissidents and Hong Kong protesters today.

I’m also accustomed to getting the comic angle on their history. “We all thought we were under surveillance in a vague sort of way,” said the art historian Tessa DeCarlo, who joined a revolutionary group in New York after the visceral thrills of the Columbia University student strike of 1968. “There was this big guy with short hair and a little beard who gave me a lift home and started telling me about his vasectomy,” she recalls. “I thought: This guy is a cop. That’s not the way leftists pick each other up.”

A click on the phone is usually just a click, but the anxiety is understandable. The police, the FBI, and the CIA surveilled this generation of radical Americans with enthusiasm. Contemporary journalism exposed the basic shape of their campaigns long before any files were declassified. In 1967, Ramparts magazine revealed that the National Student Association was partly funded and directed by the CIA. In 1974, the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh filled the front page of the New York Times with news that the CIA had operated “a network of informants who were ordered to penetrate antiwar groups.”

Since then, Freedom of Information requests have uncovered enough of the iceberg to show that veterans were right to be suspicious, and that those suspicions had been used as a weapon against them. As the former CIA officer Frank Rafalko told me, “Some of these people may have gone off at the deep end because they felt they were being persecuted. Even if it they only thought it was happening to them.” In the late 1960s, Rafalko was gathering intelligence on the Black Panthers. Their paranoia about infiltration did not impede his work. Indeed, it formed a strange mirror of the U.S. government’s tendency to overestimate the capabilities of its domestic radicals.

In democratic states, the infiltrated have recourse to the legal system. In nondemocratic states, the authorities can act with impunity. But each produces its own version of this paradigm. “Tapping a telephone is a big deal in this country,” said one former London Metropolitan Police intelligence officer. “It’s not easy to get, and the home secretary has to sign each one off personally. The bad guys tend to think that we can tap phones at the drop of a hat. We quite like that. And if they think we have an undercover officer or an intelligence source in every group, then great.” He illustrated the principle by referencing a group of suspects who were held in a U.K. police station in the 1990s. “Their releases were staggered,” he explained, “and they were all ‘pitched’ by our agent handlers. It was unlikely that any of them would have come over. If one of them had, it would have been absolutely lovely. But all of them would have known that the others had been approached, and that’s useful.”

Left-wing organizations, he thinks, are much more disposed to worry about infiltration than those on the far-right—which are currently resurgent, organized, violent, and the object of intense official attention. “The left is extremely paranoid,” he argued. “In this country and across the West, the extreme left thinks that we have a lot more interest in them than we do.” The historical reasons for this are deep. They reflect those years when Western governments were twitchy about Soviet sympathizers within their institutions. They reflect a real history of espionage. And they reflect those Marxist cultures in which cadre members made constant examination of their own motives and those of comrades within their group.

In the years before 1917, the Bolsheviks were so heavily infiltrated by the Tsarist secret police that two paid agents were present at its founding congress. (It became a bitter joke: One old Bolshevik even produced a memoir called Agents Provocateurs I Have Known.) In power, the KGB continued the policy, placing its own operatives inside dissident groups and sometimes setting up fake underground organizations to entrap rebellious individuals.

Infiltration was also adopted as a tool of global revolution, as my own family history attests. My great uncle, Jesse Sweet, spent 1929 at the International Lenin School in Moscow, submitting to rigorous self-criticism sessions and acquiring the tradecraft to help him to get inside the British Army and foment the Welsh Revolution. His success was limited.

Distance lends this story a larky air that does not attend more recent cases—those, for instance, of the women who entered into long-term sexual relationships, some of which produced children, with undercover officers working for the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad in the 1980s. They have received apologies and financial compensation, but the paperwork that would help them understand their experiences remains closed. And for writers seeking to illuminate the recent past, outing an infiltrator remains a hazardous occupation. The British philosopher Bryan Magee discovered this in 1999, when he wrongly accused his fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell’s former secretary Ralph Schoenman of being a CIA plant. Magee wrote that he was “an appallingly sinister figure … like an evil dwarf.” Schoenman sued, and Magee’s book was pulped.

Sometimes, though, the secret state unwittingly exposes its own operatives. A few years ago, I read the testimony of Ray Jones, a U.S. Army deserter who, in 1967, left his base in Germany to seek humanitarian asylum in Sweden. There, he claimed to have received a phone call from an American journalist named Richard Gibson, who told him that the CIA would kill him if he refused to return and face a court martial.

Rumors about Gibson’s loyalties had washed around him for years. In the 1960s, he had been suspected of snooping among African American exiles in Paris and informing on his comrades on the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. But he had also won a libel case against the only writer who had ever dared to declare him a CIA asset. When I visited Gibson in his top floor flat by the Regent’s Canal in London, he sent me on my way with a warning about the rich settlement he had received from the last person to call him a spy. Then, in 2018, the CIA released a cache of documents from which they neglected to redact his name. They showed that the CIA had recruited him in Paris in 1965, assigned him the codename QRPHONE-1 and put him on a $900 monthly salary to report on “his extensive contacts among leftist, radical, and communist movements in Europe and Africa.” (Gibson is still alive, but his family says that his health does not permit him to respond to questions.)

A China with a Freedom of Information Act is inconceivable at present. Demonstrators in Hong Kong have no access to the mechanisms that protect radicals in democratic societies. There is no Seymour Hersh on the staff of the China Daily. The Ministry of State Security does not pay compensation to its victims.

They will be forced to rely on different methods. On Richard Scotford’s Facebook page, supporters and detractors are debating the significance of the reporter’s decision to protect Xu Jinyang from a potentially fatal kicking—and what to do when the next apparent infiltrator is detected.

“I don’t regret saving his ass,” he posted. “But I wouldn’t do it again for … any other spy. Spies, be warned.”

Matthew Sweet is an English writer, historian, and broadcaster. His latest book is Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola