HONG KONG - James To was growing uneasy. When the veteran Hong Kong Democratic Party lawmaker looked in his rear-view mirror, two silver Mercedes Benz saloons kept appearing behind his grey Volvo sedan.
For almost a week, one or the other was behind him on his daily commute. When he arrived at the Legislative Council building, the following car would park nearby and wait, sometimes for hours. With his suspicion hardening, on August 11 To complained to the police, reporting the registration numbers of the two Mercedes in his detailed statement.
The next morning he pulled out of his home in the largely working class neighborhood of North Point on Hong Kong island and headed to work. At the bottom of the street outside his building, he glanced in the mirror to see an unmarked car pull sharply into the path of a silver Mercedes behind him. Several men got out of the unmarked car. He kept driving, assuming the police had moved fast to intercept his tail.
He was right. Later, To says, the police informed him they had arrested two men and seized two Mercedes. What he didn't know was that the police had inadvertently foiled a surveillance operation being run by mainland China. Just ahead of the biggest pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover, the police had stumbled into a Chinese internal security operation aimed at monitoring the activities of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, according to two people with knowledge of the surveillance.
The mainland Chinese intelligence services have long been suspected of running covert operations in Hong Kong, but this has now been confirmed for the first time, Reuters has learned, with one of their surveillance teams taken into custody. The pair was part of a team watching To, according to the people familiar with the operation. Other teams have been assigned to track key figures in the pro-democracy movement and critics of Beijing's rule in the city, they say, with the aim of uncovering compromising information.
The arrested pair was quickly released without any public announcement. The police declined to divulge their identities to Reuters.
RETIRED POLICE OFFICERS
Retired senior Hong Kong police officers and managers at private security companies say mainland intelligence services have been recruiting former Hong Kong police to assist in political surveillance operations. Recruiters identify former officers with surveillance training and pro-Beijing sympathies. They say more than 20 of these retired officers have been assigned to surveillance teams working alongside mainland agents.
One of the Mercedes cars that To reported to police is registered to a local resident who says he is a Hong Kong public servant. The man told Reuters he played no role in the surveillance. The other car was displaying a license plate that is not registered to any vehicle, according to records of the Hong Kong government's Transport Department.
News of the mainland spying operation comes as many Hong Kong residents are already chafing at China's tightening grip on their city. The fear: Beijing is eroding the wide-ranging personal freedoms and independent law enforcement enshrined in the one country, two systems formula under which they have been governed since British rule ended in 1997.
Pro-democracy lawmakers, academics and political activists worry that Hong Kong is becoming more like mainland Chinese cities, where the internal security services join forces with the police to crush dissent.
They say the surveillance has intensified over the last 12 months, as the city's pro-democracy movement began planning for the campaign of civil disobedience that disrupted Hong Kong's central business district for more than two months from late September. For China's leaders, the upheaval presents one of the most serious popular challenges to Communist Party rule since the 1989 Tiananmen protests.