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.