Hong Kong criminals take fast lane to riches: Raymond Whitaker on the track of thieves who are making the colony the car-theft capital of the world

MOST of Hong Kong's richer citizens want their new Governor, Chris Patten, to avoid confrontation with China.

They believe that a clash over democracy or the planned new airport would be bad for business. But on one issue they demand a tough stand - the way their luxury cars keep disappearing to the People's Republic.

Hong Kong, with one of the highest concentrations of expensive cars anywhere, has now become the world capital of car theft. Last year 6,400 cars were stolen, or more than one for every 1,000 of its citizens.

This, in its way, was something of a success for the authorities, being a rise of only 100 on the 1991 figure, while the number of cars recovered went up from 4,000 to 4,400. But this year the thieves are gaining once more: in May alone they took 90 Mercedes, one of the most popular makes.

Nearly all the stolen cars are intended for export. Some end up in Malaysia or the Philippines, but most are 'liberated' to order for buyers in China.

Large and slightly out-of-date Mercedes models are sought after, as spares are easily available on the mainland, but China's rising prosperity, particularly in the areas bordering Hong Kong, has led to a rising demand for BMWs and the Japanese Lexus as well.

Hong Kong's overburdened police have enough to worry about already, with the territory suffering an upsurge in violent crime. Heavily armed gangsters are being brought in from China to raid jewellery shops - in the worst incident earlier this year, automatic weapons and a grenade were used, killing one man and wounding a dozen passers-by. Mr Patten has promised to press the Chinese to co-operate in stemming the 'outrageous' increase in armed robberies.

Local authorities in China, however, are suspected of collusion with Hong Kong's triad gangs. The deputy police chief of one town just over the border is said to drive a stolen Toyota Crown, and Communist Party cadres are among the main clients of the car-theft rings. Most of the vehicles are brought in on high- powered speedboats, which can outrun the colony's Marine Police launches with ease.

Hong Kong's Attorney-General, Jeremy Mathews, was among the victims. His Toyota Crown was recovered before it could be smuggled out, but often the thieves work too quickly. In one case a car stolen from the convention centre in Wanchai was intercepted as it was being loaded on to a speedboat in Causeway Bay, seven minutes later.

Police also once found a Mercedes, wrapped in a giant plastic bag, abandoned on a slipway. They speculate that it was a failed attempt to imitate drug smugglers, who tow their contraband behind the vessel. If they are challenged, they can cut the rope and dispose of the evidence.

These, however, are among the few successes for the police. Even when the car is seized, the thieves often get away. Their increasing professionalism is good business for John YorkWilliams, whose company designs and markets car alarms, immobilisers and security systems.

'Any keys can be copied in Hong Kong, even modern 'security' keys,' he said. 'An impression is often taken when they are handed over to parking attendants at restaurants, hotels or nightclubs, the sort of places owners of luxury cars go. At the same time the thieves note from stickers on the windscreen where the car is usually parked, and a couple of nights later they pay you a visit. They find it easy to bluff, bribe or intimidate their way past the guards.'

The despairing Hong Kong authorities are considering a ban on the kind of powerboats the thieves use.

Mr YorkWilliams's phones, meanwhile, are ringing busily. Some of the calls are from buyers of his 'Rottweiler' security system, which features two remote controls and an optional extra keypad which demands a four-figure code to unlock the ignition. They have forgotten how to start their cars.

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