DON'T tell Burmese seaman Aung Aung Win the official Hongkong Government line that South China Sea piracy barely exists and that China's constant harassment of small ships leaving the territory poses little threat to Hongkong's reputation. He'll spit on the ground and laugh in your face - bitterly. Seaman Aung is waiting on board a tiny Belize-registered freighter in Yau Ma Tei for his next instructions to sail to Vietnam, likely to be his third doomed bid to run the gauntlet of Chinese gunboats lying just off Hongkong. Seaman Aung's ship Fairview has just returned to Hongkong after losing a cargo of 20 cars bound for Ho Chi Minh City after three months detention somewhere up the Pearl River. This time if he's lucky, the ship and crew will escape lightly. Trigger-happy Chinese raiders may fire a few automatic rifle rounds into the hull and a few more in the air before locking the crew in the hold on a diet of congee and Pearl River water for a few more months. ''They know they (the Chinese) can pick on us for no reason and no one will do anything, even though we are leaving Hongkong legally and not even going to China - the Hongkong Government is powerless,'' Seaman Aung said. ''Last year I saw my captain chained to the ceiling and beaten in the stomach, so every time we leave we are very scared. At the same time, we are very lucky to be working out of Burma and we can't live without our US$300 (HK$2,300) each month, so we must take the risks for the owners.'' Yet now, after a solid six months of brazen raids by the Guangdong security forces, Government policy makers are still keeping well out of the issue despite mounting shipping industry and diplomatic concerns over the safety of the port of Hongkong. Behind the pressure is new fears that the pirates, now raiding ships around the South China Sea, could be the same officials calmly waiting just miles off Po Toi Island. China has snubbed earlier requests for explanations raised by Foreign Office staff in Beijing and London, while legal opinions differ whether it has the right to detain and seize cargo from legitimate ships without any public evidence of smuggling. The crunch will come when the Security Branch decides whether or not to let the Marine Department reveal the more than 30 interceptions logged so far in a report on piracy to the United Nations' International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in London next month. ''Sooner or later, the Chinese will take the wrong ship, or a pirate will explode a ship or something and then the floodgates will open, making Hongkong look pretty damn stupid,'' one diplomat said this week. ''Everyone's now watching the South China Sea and waiting. There is also the fear that once China gets a taste of its powers by setting off Hongkong, more important and respected shipping trades will be the next victims.'' Marine Department principal surveyor, Captain Duncan Drummond, said most attacks seemed to involve armed uniformed personnel who, unlike the Ninja-like safe-robbing bandits plaguing the Malacca Straits, seem to use apparently bogus official reasons to make a ship stop. Rocket grenades, AK-47 automatic rifles and large fireworks are weapons of choice in the South China Sea, with no ship too big to be fair game. ''They pull up alongside in small speedboats or fishing boats and say they want to check the cargo, or put a pilot on board, or say they need assistance which, when it happens way out at sea, puts captains in quite a dilemma.'' Marine Department and shipping industry officials are less eager to talk ''on-the-record'' about the darker threat of pirate raids being somehow linked to the interceptions, perhaps as simply aborted attempts to board ships by over-zealous officials. US intelligence reports have linked the two, while new evidence has surfaced following the recent raid on the 55,000-tonne Romanian bulk carrier Birlad, attacked earlier this month just 73 miles off Waglan Island. ''All I can say is that from reports of successful boardings, they (the pirates) seem to have knowledge of shipping procedures which I wouldn't expect from a typical fisherman turned pirate,'' Captain Drummond said. ''Some of these people have asked for manifests.'' An unpublished report obtained by the South China Morning Post shows a Malaysian cargo ship was boarded by Chinese officials in the same way pirates were supposed to have attacked the Birlad hours later. The report, circulated by the Hongkong Shipowners' Association and the Marine Department, shows the Pernas Proton gave in to warning fire and stopped to let 11 men in military uniforms aboard, seven who were armed. They checked the cargo manifest as wellas the cargo hatches and on discovering a less-than-appetising load of steel coils, left the ship. The worrying grey areas behind such attacks have led the association's director Mr Michael Farlie, who represents interests as beefy as World Wide Shipping, to prepare papers on local threats to merchant shipping. The papers will be raised at next month's meeting of the Asian Shipowners' Forum and the International Shipping Federation in London. ''There is real concern and we would like to see China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines play their part through the IMO,'' said Mr Farlie. The heavyweight pressure means little to the hundreds of sailors waiting on tiny ships off Yau Ma Tei, whose main concern is simply how to avoid aggravating the petty Chinese officials set to stop them. ''I don't know about the Vietnamese sailors or the Filipinos, but we (Burmese) would never carry guns for protection, for we are Buddhists and there's no way our captain would allow it,'' Seaman Aung said. ''We just have to lay down like dogs.''