HK Magazine Archive

Why Don't They Just Tighten Up the Hong Kong-China Border?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 4:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:47pm

Dear Mr. Know-It-All,
If parallel trading is such a nuisance, why don’t they just tighten up the border controls? – Border Collie

Hong Kong’s border issues weren’t always about parallel trading, you know.

There are 16 miles of border between Hong Kong and China, running between Mirs Bay in the East and Deep Bay in the West. Once upon a time, the border was watched with zeal, another front in the cold war between East and West.

In 1945 the city of Hong Kong was liberated from Japanese occupation, and over the next two years its population swelled from 500,000 to 1.8 million. The city was just about getting back on its feet when it saw another wave of migration. Thanks to the Chinese civil war, 1948-9 witnessed huge numbers of people move to the south as the victorious CCP armies pushed the Kuomintang out of the country. In 1949 and 1950 around 750,000 people fled from China to Hong Kong. By spring of 1950, the city’s population was around 2.36 million.

As if that wasn’t enough to tax the city’s already stretched resources, more and more people were arriving. Illegal immigration became a major concern. The borderlands became a lawless hinterland, and 1949 saw a series of gang attacks on police outposts near the border that led to the theft of munitions and the death of a police officer.

The then-Commissioner of Police, Duncan MacIntosh, decided that something had to be done. He proposed the construction of seven police posts on hilltops spanning those 16 arbitrary miles that separated China from Hong Kong.

Each of the seven forts would have a prominent tower, affording a 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside, and each would be in sight of its neighboring posts. They would be manned 24 hours a day, and the all-seeing eyes of what became known as the “MacIntosh Cathedrals” would patrol even as the rest of Hong Kong slept.

It worked, and the towers played an important part in preventing illegal immigration and cross-border smuggling. The towers were later kitted out with thermal sensors, night vision equipment and all the electronic gewgaws you’d expect of a surveillance outpost. The buildings are still operated by the police force, although these days all the work is done remotely.

Well, almost all the work—the MacIntosh Cathedral at Kong Shan still sees a police constable deployed to it every night. Take heart in the fact that even now a single, solitary officer keeps watch on the border between Hong Kong and China: One final face standing between our city and total integration.