Date: Thu, 23 Oct 1997 07:30:18 -0400
Sender: H-Net list for Asian History and Culture <>
Subject: H-ASIA: Hong Kong Diary # 17
October 23, 1997
From: (Josephine Khu)
Subject: Hong Kong Diary #17

Hong Kong Diary # 17

By Josephine Khu. 23 October, 1997

About a month ago, Patrick, a partner at the law firm for which my husband works, failed to come to work. My husband was scheduled to meet with him that morning to discuss some documents they were examining. Tension mounted as the hours passed, and Patrick still failed to put in an appearance. It was only dispelled when news came that the normally reliable Patrick had not suddenly taken to his heels in a fit of mid-life crisis, but was in fact lying on a hospital bed, having received about a dozen hammer blows to the head during a burglary at his flat in the early hours of the morning.

Patrick and his wife were attacked, tied up, and robbed by two men suspected of being illegal immigrants from mainland China. The news was only shocking to us because this was the first time that such a thing had happened to people with whom we were actually acquainted. Otherwise, such an incident would have not have seemed particularly noteworthy. Crimes committed by Chinese illegal immigrants are frequently reported by the Hong Kong media--particularly when they involve robberies of wealthy and high-profile residents of the Peak, Hong Kong's most exclusive residential area, where Patrick and his wife live. However, it is not only the wealthy who are robbed. Villagers living in secluded areas near the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR)'s land border with China, or on its quiet, out-lying islands have also been attacked by desperate and hungry immigrants in hiding.

There are many reasons, including that of family reunification, why people from mainland China attempt illegal crossings into Hong Kong. But one motive stands out. Hong Kong is a place where salaries are among the highest in the world. Mainland China is a place where they are among the lowest. No border, however strictly patrolled on both sides, by land and sea, could be anything but porous before such facts.

The wonder is not that so many illegal immigrants are coming from the mainland (about 50 have been repatriated every day since the establishment of the SAR on July 1st), and that some are committing crimes when they enter Hong Kong. Rather, what is surprising is that only in the last two years has the problem has reached a level where the general public has begun to worry about its safety. Patrick, for example, had been living in the same place without security for the past seven years without incident. After the burglary, he hired a Gurkha to guard his flat full-time. We humbler denizens of less desirable neighborhoods have resorted to much simpler security measures. For instance, instead of leaving the windows of our fifth floor apartment open all night, we now make certain they are fastened, and sleep with the air-conditioner on, even during relatively cool nights. Two years ago, this had not seemed necessary, but reports last year of break-ins by agile burglars made this seem advisable. We and others have now also become more cautious about engaging in such activities as walking or hiking in secluded or quiet areas, whatever the time of day. Last year an elderly man, a non-resident of the Peak, was robbed and stabbed to death while walking along one of its popular trails with his wife at noon during a weekday. His Mandarin-speaking attackers were almost certainly illegal immigrants.

The SAR's political reincorporation into China, and its ever-increasing economic integration with the mainland, may be partial factors behind the recent increase in illegal immigrant crime in Hong Kong. The root cause, however, probably lies in changes taking place within the mainland itself--changes from which the SAR, because of its geographical location, cannot be immune--whatever the state of its relationship with the rest of China. Until perhaps the mid-1980s, strict controls on internal travel and residence in China made it difficult for people to visit or relocate from one part of the country to the other. The gradual relaxation and even lifting of such controls, coupled with economic reforms centered on selected coastal cities have, in the past ten years, resulted in massive migrations from the interior of China to its coast, and from countryside to city. Many of the illegal immigrants arrested by Hong Kong police have been speaking, not the Cantonese of neighboring Guangdong province, but Mandarin in the accents of provinces as far inland as Hunan, and as far north as Shandong. Clearly, this same process of migration from interior to coast is at work in Hong Kong, although the influx here has been controlled by the effects of strict mainland and Hong Kong government policies and police.

Hong Kong also attracts illegal immigrants from China's largest and wealthiest coastal cities, who have better contacts to facilitate their entry into the SAR and to possibly provide them with jobs. As economic reforms in China deepen, and more urban residents are laid-off by the financially-strapped state enterprises for which the majority of them still work, illegal immigration from such cities may increase. One of the two burglars who attacked Patrick, in fact, spoke in Shanghainese.

Some days after the attack, Patrick returned to work with a scar running down his forehead, a bandanna wrapped around his injured head (which, unfortunately for someone in his profession, gave him a slightly piratical look), and a strong disinclination to speak about the event. Not so the Hong Kong press, which continued to splash pictures of him and his television presenter wife on its pages, and to discuss the problem of illegal immigrant crime with greater spirit than ever. Recently, they revealed the rather sensational news that even the police on Peak Road station have now become so fearful of break-ins by illegal immigrants that they have taken to locking the station from the inside in the evenings, in order to protect the officers within.

Josephine Khu
Research Associate
History Department
Chinese University of Hong Kong

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