Out of Hong Kong: Luxurious cars take a fast boat to China

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AMID the ever-burgeoning economic links between Hong Kong and southern China, one aspect of cross-border trade is definitely one-way. One Hong Kong businessman, realising that his Mercedes-Benz had just been stolen, called the thief on the car phone and pleaded for the car's return, only to be told that it was on board a speedboat to China.

Guangdong's 'new rich', the entrepreneurs who have made fortunes under China's economic reforms, share one thing with their Hong Kong Cantonese counterparts: a weakness for powerful, luxury cars. The snob status of brand-names was one of Hong Kong's earliest exports to southern China. Further down the economic scale, the residents of Canton, the capital of Guangdong province, want foreign televisions, videos and other electrical goods, even at twice the Hong Kong price. And the mainland's smuggling syndicates are only too happy to oblige.

Most nights, weather permitting, stolen luxury cars or truckloads of legally purchased electrical goods are loaded on to mainland speedboats - known as tai feis (big flyers) - that cruise through Hong Kong's busy shipping lanes at more than 60mph to southern China.

Many of the luxury cars are stolen to order from the high-security car parks of Hong Kong, driven to remote loading docks, and hoisted into specially designed speedboats. The operation is precision-timed (a car can be loaded in about 45 seconds) and highly organised (buyers can specify the type and colour wanted).

Hong Kong's right-hand drive cars are a common sight in Canton's backstreets. Mercedes, BMWs, and the top of the range Mazdas, Toyotas and Lexus are most popular. Just three days after the Mazda 929 model was first sold on the mainland, it was being stolen in Hong Kong. Luxury car insurance premiums in the colony have soared as a result. The authorities in the mainland, where cars drive on the right, announced that right- hand drive cars could no longer be registered, but this only led to a surge in illegal imports into Hong Kong of left-hand drive models.

So every night a game of cat and mouse is played around the harbours and in the open waters, masterminded by the Anti-Smuggling Task Force (ASTF). 'The mainland tai feis are showing a blatant disregard of territorial boundaries,' said Senior Superintendant William Harvey. 'It is also a matter of safety. You can't have large numbers of high-speed boats tearing around Hong Kong waters unlit at night.'

From dusk, Mr Harvey sits in the ASTF control room, surrounded by radios and telephones waiting for sightings. On the walls, large maps of Hong Kong's waters are ruled off into numbered squares, rather as if a game of 'battleships' is under way.

That night, a suspicious boat was reported south of Hong Kong, apparently heading out of the colony's waters. An hour later it had turned north - and the chase was on. The ASTF's two fastest boats were despatched. Ten minutes later a Navy patrol boat was reporting these anti- smuggling boats as possible targets, only to be told: 'They're ours.'

It can be dangerous; three nights earlier one crew had been forced to fire on a smugglers' boat that was about to ram them. In August, four smugglers were killed when their boat hit a Marine Police vessel.

Using night-vision goggles, and guided by the smell of Chinese two- stroke engine fuel, the anti-smuggling boats finally spotted their target waiting for another boat to arrive with a car. Flares were fired - and the tai fei was on the run.

For 30 minutes the smugglers' boat bounced from wave to wave at full throttle trying to escape to Chinese waters. In the end, two of its engines stopped, the boat was swamped by a wave, and by the time the ASTF team reached it the tai fei was sinking. Three smugglers were arrested, and the tai fei slipped beneath the waves. 'An excellent start to the month,' said Mr Harvey.

The three Chinese men were from Lim Shan in Guangdong, and said they had come to pick up a left-hand drive car from a lighter. They would earn 3,000 renminbi ( pounds 330) each for the trip, and for the coxswain it was the seventh trip in two weeks. By lunchtime the next day, each been sentenced to 18 months in jail.

Since the beginning of April, the ASTF's land and sea teams have arrested 140 smugglers and seized more than 11m Hong Kong dollars' worth of cars, motor cycles and electrical goods. Nine smuggling boats have been captured or sunk.

In Canton's busy streets, no one looks twice at the many badly parked new Mercedes. One spotted this week did not even have a number plate. But there is unusual pressure on the Hong Kong authorities to prevent these crimes. It is not only from powerful businessmen; five senior government officials have had their cars stolen in the past two years.

(Photograph omitted)