A change comes over Hong Kong

Loretta Tofani is a former Inquirer reporter writing a series of articles on factory workers in China with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The articles will be published in The Inquirer. From her is the following article from July 1st.

The clerk at the small Comfort Hotel in Hong Kong seemed like a nice guy. I decided to trust him. After all, this was Hong Kong, the democracy. So I told him something I would never say to a hotel clerk in other parts of China: “I’m a journalist.”

What happened afterward has led me to see Hong Kong in a new way: as part of China’s police state, where nearly everyone – whether in an official position or not – can be expected to participate in the Big Brother system of spying and repression.

This may seem surprising for Hong Kong. Ever since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule on this day 10 years ago, China’s government has appeared to respect Hong Kong’s status as a “special administrative region.” The region has its own laws permitting freedom of the press, assembly and religion – freedoms not enjoyed in the rest of China. Yet Hong Kong since 1997 has been populated with Beijing-loyal citizens from China. “Apparatchiks,” Hong Kong Legislative Council member Martin Lee has called them. They help steer Hong Kong.

I was in China in March, April and May, doing some freelance reporting on factory conditions. I did initial reporting from Hong Kong. One organization gave me a booklet in Chinese. I do not read Chinese. I speak Mandarin, but not well. At the hotel, I asked the clerk, Peter, to translate a page. He obliged. We discussed my stories.

Then I left for mainland China.

When I returned to Hong Kong two months later, I checked into the same hotel. I used the hotel computer, clicking on a map of China.

“Are you finished with your report?” Peter asked.

I said I wasn’t, then disappeared into my room.

Minutes later, I heard Peter speaking on the telephone.

“. . . Map of China,” I heard him say. “She’s not finished yet; she’ll be back. No, she’s not afraid.”

I tried not to jump to conclusions. I thought back to when I was based in China in the 1990s for The Inquirer. My physician husband would say, “Bring out the Haldol,” a drug for psychotic patients, every time I noticed an odd “coincidence”: hotel workmen putting up drapes in my room at odd hours; repairmen “fixing” my not-broken refrigerator and air conditioner; the taxi “dispatcher” asking the driver for my occupation and nationality.

But this was Hong Kong, the democracy, in 2007. That evening, a new clerk informed me that the air conditioner in my room needed fixing. Would I allow a repairman in that evening, around 8:30?

“No,” I replied. “The air conditioner isn’t broken.”

The next day, Peter was back briefly. He asked if the repairman could visit my room that night.

I felt sure a listening device would be part of the “repair.”

“Sure,” I said.

One hour later, I checked out. The hotel’s front door shut behind me. I started making my way to the street. Suddenly the hotel door swung open and a clerk appeared. Her question seemed inappropriate:

“Are you going to America? Or China?”

I didn’t answer.

I checked into another hotel, Nathan House. Three days later, the maid asked for the phone in my room. I unplugged it and handed it to her. I didn’t think more of it until two nights later.

A man’s loud voice, angry, sarcastic, woke me from my sleep around midnight. He was in the hotel common area.

“Was her boss here?” he asked in Mandarin.

“No,” the hotel manager replied. “Her friend.”

“That wasn’t her friend,” he sneered. “That was an interpreter! An interpreter!”

He was right. A college student, Yuki, using my cell phone, was helping me contact factory owners for comment for my stories. It’s easier for a native speaker to get sensitive information over the telephone.

The man continued the tirade, his voice getting louder and louder, exchanging remarks with a woman whose voice I recognized: the hotel maid. They discussed my personal life – I had come to China without my children – and my phone calls the previous day.

Someone turned on a Chinese music CD at full volume – even though it was by then 12:40 a.m.

“Let her come out!” he taunted.

“Yes, let her come out!” cheered the hotel maid.

I went back to sleep. In the morning I waited for Yuki. I told her about the night’s events. “Don’t worry,” she said. “This is Hong Kong, not China. Anyone bothers you, just call 999. The police will come right away.”

I gave her a number to call: another factory. Yuki asked to speak to the manager.

There was a long pause. Yuki was told the man was at lunch.

“But it’s only 10:30,” Yuki said.

The conversation ended. The hotel maid’s mocking laughter rang through the hotel.

“Something is wrong,” Yuki said.

Yuki tried another number, another factory. The result was the same. The hotel maid’s laughter rang out again.

We stopped. The morning’s failure was not an accident, I felt sure.

As we left the hotel, a man wearing a suit strode into the hotel common area. He was looking carefully at a black object in his hands, larger and bulkier than a calculator.

Was it a machine to read and intercept the phone numbers Yuki had called? So perhaps he could call them and issue warnings?

I believe it was. Journalists are under government control in China. Some have their work disrupted, deliberately.

What does this mean for Hong Kong? The city needs a free flow of information for its capitalist system – a system China strongly supports, both for Hong Kong and itself. But my recent experience suggests that China’s agents will whittle away at freedoms. They will use covert, guerrilla tactics of intimidation and disruption against those they see as threats. In Hong Kong, the appearance of freedoms – for religion, press and assembly – will remain. But the core will be rotten.

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About Stranded Mariner

Marine Engineer and passionate sailor and cruiser, working in the marine business in China.
This entry was posted in Censorship, China, Chinese Fascism, Hong Kong, News and Opinion. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to A change comes over Hong Kong

  1. Meursault says:

    Thanks for that article. It makes disconcerting reading.

  2. MyLaowai says:

    “hotel workmen putting up drapes in my room at odd hours; repairmen “fixing” my not-broken refrigerator and air conditioner”

    Another favourite is televisions. I have my own experiences with bugs being placed in my home, but the worst part is the ineptitude of the guys who placed them there – do they really assume I am too stupid to not be suspicious? It’s actually insulting. I always deal with the issue by giving them what they want – lot’s of talk about plots to kill the Chairman etc etc blah blah blah.

    Bastards.

  3. madne0 says:

    I’m just surprised it took them so long to export their “magnificent” system to Hong Kong.

  4. Stranded Mariner says:

    I have personal experience with the televisions. Still remember when Mrs. Mariner and myself where watching TV in a hotel in Zhuhai. ‘Maintenance guy’ drops in and says that there is something wrong with the TV, and he has to replace it. Told him to fuck off of course, but they exchanged the TV anyway the next day, when we were away. Just stupid.

  5. MyLaowai says:

    Yep. And then there was the time when they tried putting a bug inside one my walls at home? They thought they would be clever by drilling down from the floor above right inside my wall. Except that the drill went in at an angle and left a bloody hole in my ceiling.

    Dumb idiots. Really, if you want to discover the Fucked Up Gene, look inside the DNA of a Chinese.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hey, you wrote a fabulous article about the current situation in China. As long as you are in Hong Kong you do not need to worry too much about the food poisoning crisis which has in the recent years spread its wings all over China even as far as Tibet. But next time when you come to China, for your safety, I highly recommend you to bring your own water and food supply, yes, the crisis has gotten that bad. And the Chinese government is not really going to do anything about this serious issue either, the Chinese government is only pretending to handle this issue to shut the critics up. Deep inside, the Chinese government actually supports this food poisoning crisis because food poisoning slows and kills brain cells. Therefore most Chinese people would be easier for the Chinese government to control. And what I mean by easier to control is that Chinese government could more easily secure its power and wealth and prolong the period of dramatic wealth disparity between the rich and poor.
    China is currently opening an average of four to five power stations and five coal mines a week, therefore I am really not surprised that the whole planet is warming up. (The Chinese media reports two but as you know, the government media always plays the numbers down) Oh, yes the Chinese government regards pollution in the same hypocritical atittude as it regards food poisoning, anything to make the Chinese people stupid enough to stay obedient like cute little puppies.
    Outspoken journalists like you hopefully would be willing to report to the foreign embassy and government about such serious crisis within China and take action against such a corrupt hypocritical government.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi, China Daily has recently announced that the dirty cardboard stuffing dumpling story is fabricated. Please do not ever believe China Daily, there are even worse unimaginable food processing stories in China that have never gotten mentioned. A good example is what all major domestic food factories in China are doing now to compensate for the lack of meat and meat’s rising prices; they bargained with prisons and such institutions that manage dead human bodies for burial to instead send the dead human bodies to the meat factory for food processing. Thereby, solving the problems of input costs and meat supply. Chinese people have been continuously fed dead human meat without knowlegde! Please report this imediately to the foreign governments. Although the Chinese government would try its best to refute and cover up such a hideous truth, please who ever you are do not ever buy into the Chinese government’s coverups and tricks; such as trying to pass qualified foreign imported meat as if the imported meat is from its domestic major meat factories.
    I was extremely infuriated when China Daily dared to refute even the dirty cardboard stuffed dumpling story, which is actually not that severe in comparison to the much more serious issue as mass feeding the Chinese people dead human meat.

  8. Anounymous says:

    I have gotten the link to the refute story; http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-07/20/content-5440679.htm

    Also, Chinese rapid military buildup is another worrying sign (it usually spends on its military five times the amount of money US, Britain, and even Russia spend on their militaries) , I think you are smart enough to figure out what the Chinese government wants. Chinese government is currently using Taiwan as an excuse, but the Chinese government has a much bigger prey…after thinking about the rich foreign countries’ resources…
    Please, warn as much as foreign governments as possible… let the foreign governments know that business is not more important than safety.

  9. Stranded Mariner says:

    Well, I think that the whole ‘cardboard stuffing dumpling’ story was first made up by the Chinese government (China Daily), then reported as a fake story, just to create a smoke curtain to hide all the worse things that are going on. It would fit the pattern. They learned it from the Stalinist fascists. Mainland China is only driven by bottomless corruption and greed. What we finally get to know of through the media, is only the tip of the iceberg. I still think, and I said this many years ago already, that it will get a lot worse before it ever gets better.

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