Race to catch up with smugglers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 July, 1998, 12:00am

In 1991, the quiet waters of Mirs Bay were nightly churned into a furious confusion as the wakes of racing speedboats left white scars over the dark waters. Slim steel-clad vessels, sterns pulled low by the weight and immense power of five outboard motors, screamed across the surface at speeds up to 80 knots.

From coves along the Tolo Harbour and ducking out from islands off Sai Kung, slower vessels bearing frustrated policemen would dart out to try to confront and detain the tearaway smuggling fleet. They had little luck.

It was a dangerous game, but one of vast potential profit for the smugglers. In their purpose-built craft, they could pack hundreds of televisions or a stolen-to-order luxury car. In a straight run on a moonless night, they could be out of Hong Kong waters and in the sanctuary of Chinese territory within 10 minutes. There, waiting connections on land or on vessels at a rendezvous, would swiftly switch cargoes and head for a mainland port to conclude a lucrative deal.

This was big business, and a frantic one. Mainland demand for electronics was high. Internal duties and taxes pushed up the price of a television to three times the cost in Hong Kong. Just as water flows down hill, so does instant smuggling pour through such an obvious gap in tariff walls. A rather desultory waterborne trade in illegal immigrants and basic goods suddenly flowered into a full-scale racket, in defiance of customs and police on both sides of the border.

In 1991, Marine Police reported more than 6,000 suspected speed boats racing across our waters, destination Chinese territory. Sometimes, there were two dozen chases a night.

This was not merely a few fishermen trying to make a quick buck by carrying a half-dozen televisions to a friend or relative on a mainland junk, but a well-organised underworld armada netting millions of dollars.

The syndicates which swiftly developed were skilful, sophisticated and determined. Like all good businessmen, they were ready to plough profits back into their enterprise; as police upgraded their vessels and the Royal Navy added patrols in light and fast commando boats, the piratical fleets began investing in dai feis.

These slender custom-tailored craft were designed to snugly fit the largest luxury limousine in one deep open hold and built for speed. Realising the reception they might encounter in Chinese waters, they had bullet-proof steel sheets welded around the wheelhouse.

The police were shackled by strict orders not to open fire on the bandits. They were further handcuffed by lack of equipment; Marine Police vessels are designed to proceed at about 25 knots in stable manner, not to race and weave like lunatics at dangerous speeds which can - and did - kill innocent people.

The task of halting the illegal trade was made even more difficult by laws which did little to stamp out smuggling unless criminals were caught in the act. Even then, legal moves were usually restricted to issuing summonses for people carrying unmanifested cargoes; fines were insignificant compared to the nightly profit.

So former fishermen and village louts could laze by day in their ridiculously fast vessels, idly puffing on a cigarette and reading the racing form guide, as frustrated policemen eyed the dai fei which the night before had led them on a dangerous chase.

Well, that farce is over.

Armed with new equipment and tougher laws which prevent the construction of dai feis - literally, 'great fast' boats - in Hong Kong yards, police have cracked the problem.

So far this year, the vastly improved radar surveillance system that scans the square boundary of Hong Kong waters, has spotted a mere four 'fast moving targets'. In one of these cases, police gave chase. It ended with a collision off Cheung Chau when the vessel smashed into rocks. One smuggler was arrested and is in jail. Another was hurled into the water and never seen again. A third was drowned.

The 'fast moving targets' which appear like streaks of white on radar screens at Marine Police headquarters are the telltale trail of a dai fei. Their wakes are disappearing. In 1992, there were 5,000 sightings; 7,000 in 1993. Since then it has dwindled; 350 in 1994, 42 incidents in 1996, up to 111 again last year. This year? Four.

'It's a capricious trade,' explains Superintendent Matthew Lau Yan-sang, the Marine Police officer in charge of the Anti-Smuggling Task Force and the Small Boat Division. 'The syndicates switch quickly to anything that will make a profit.

'First it was electronics, but then the money in that dried-up when television prices dropped in China. Then it was luxury cars, stolen in Hong Kong. That became unprofitable when China banned all new right-hand drive cars.

'Then it became left-hand drive cars, imported legally to Hong Kong and then illegally into China. There's no offence when the vehicles are here; they could be meant for sale in Europe as far as we know.' As a duty free port, there is nothing much to smuggle into Hong Kong because most imported goods carry no duty. Smuggling only exists because smugglers can make a profit.

An exception into Hong Kong is diesel fuel, often imported 40 tonnes or more at a time in concealed tanks. The work and planning involved in this law-breaking seems to me totally unbalanced, but obviously smugglers think the risks and effort are worthwhile because sneaking cheap low-priced diesel from the mainland is a persistent crime. Last month, a litre of light diesel fuel in the mainland cost $1.60. In Hong Kong, with duty added, it cost $6.58. It does not take a genius to see there is a lot of money in smuggling fuel, awkward and bulky though the cargoes may be.

As Superintendent Lau says, it is a capricious business. Electronics and cars may have gone out of flavour and lost the profit motive, but when something that can turn a quick dollar appears, the smugglers are instantly back in business.

That is why units such as the Anti-Smuggling Task Force must be maintained at full strength, ready for instant use. One pause for thought and the criminals will take instant heed.

Last year, when chicken stocks were wiped out in the great bird flu scare, police noticed an upsurge of those telltale speed trails on the radar. What was the contraband? Crates of live chickens aimed for desperate gourmets.