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Then & now: The spying game

Infiltrating NGOs to keep track of emerging opposition voices has long been standard government practice, writes Jason Wordie

 

Hong Kong’s greatest strength lies in its vibrant civil society. Saddled, however, with a systemically weak government, legislators who (even at their best) serially disappoint, and a popular press that, in the absence of much serious investigative journalism, offers more bark than bite, various pressure groups, in particular NGOs, are all too often the only effective means through which public opinion can be channelled.

Across the world, NGOs of various kinds have, historically, been seeded (by official or outside agencies) with individuals placed there to maintain a close watch on goings-on. Only the most naive believe that all members of the United States government-run Peace Corps, for example, did nothing but sink tube wells in remote African villages, teach English to toddlers and leave a taste for apple pie and chocolate brownies in various places. Or that right-wing, US-backed Christian missionaries merely propagated their own cranky brand of flatearth dogma.

Hong Kong is no exception, although exactly how many local NGOs and other pressure groups have unsuspected “eyes and ears” concealed in their ranks remains anyone’s guess. And as with most aspects of contemporary Hong Kong life, idle speculation, combined with a generally opaque administrative legacy, is a dream come true for conspiracy theorists.

In earlier times, keeping an eye on emergent activist figures, and therefore likely future opposition leaders, was standard British policy elsewhere in the world. Long-term tracking of such personalities within their organisations clearly made excellent sense as personal contacts could be established, relationships maintained and – when circumstances dictated – closely manipulated.

Malaya, in particular, offers several examples of this trend; recently opened official files indicate that likely candidates for leadership roles in the 1950s were first quietly noted in the 30s.

A pressing need for better information gathering and dissemination was one significant lesson the Hong Kong government learned after the 1967 disturbances. Monitoring pressure groups partly fell to Government Information Services, part of whose role was to gather information from the general public under the artfully innocuous guise of giving it out. “PsyOps” (“psychological operations”) specialists, with counter-information experience in Northern Ireland and other hot spots, were recruited.

All this must, of course, be seen in the light of cold-war realities, when Hong Kong offered a shop window for various groups vying for political and – as China began to open up to the world – economic influence.

The Standing Committee on Pressure Groups was formed in 1978 to monitor local groups suspected of communist involvement, infiltrate them, find out their broader agenda, shadow their members and either turn them towards government objectives or use various “black arts” to cause them reputational damage in the eyes of the general public or even their own circles.

The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, then headed by veteran politician Szeto Wah, was very closely watched, as were the Government School Non-Graduate Teachers’ Union and the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Surveillance led to the Hong Kong Observers pressure group disbanding in 1983. Formed in 1975, some members went on to have prominent roles in politics, journalism and other areas of public life.

Among their number are legislator and environmental activist Christine Loh Kung-wai, former head of the Equal Opportunities Commission Anna Wu Hung-yuk and – no doubt to the surprise of some today – Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

 

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