Having worked 37 years for the Hong Kong police, Patrick Wong recently joined a civic organization called “Hong Kong United Against Illicit Trade” (反走私大聯盟), aiming to put his vast experience in anti-smuggling operations to good use and raise public awareness about illicit trade.
Wong, a former Senior Superintendent in the police force, believes that illicit trade is not simply a “trade” issue, but more of a social problem, especially with profound impact on the youth.
“It’s not just a matter of buying a pack of smuggled cigarettes or a counterfeit handbag. It’s more about directly funding the criminals and providing more economic incentives for an illegal business,” he says.
Crime syndicates often recruit the youth looking for quick cash as mules for transportation. It’s especially dangerous as it weakens the youngsters’ sense of rule of law and can easily turn them into habitual criminal offenders, Wong says.
The former officer speaks of a true story that he came across during his long years in police service.
He said he once met a 17-year-old male who joined a triad and sold counterfeit DVDs on the street. The young man was arrested and served time for involvement in the death of another triad member in a fight.
“Were it not for the profits that come with illicit trade, this teenager might not have joined the triad and turned into a murderer. This incident had a profound and lasting impact on me,” says Wong.
“I believe that illicit trade is not merely impacting the legitimate business, but it is really a social problem that calls for serious attention from the public.”
Currently, there are many illicit trade activities in Hong Kong, including those related to electronics products, cigarettes, fuel, ivory products, plants, cars, and various types of counterfeit goods. Illicit trade is so pervasive that it has a bearing on the daily life of virtually all classes in the society.
Wong says that Hong Kong United Against Illicit Trade currently focuses on activities that have the most serious impact on local society, such as illicit trade in cigarettes and counterfeit goods.
The organization has about 30 supporting members and individuals, including community organizations, small businesses, trade associations and individuals.
While counterfeit DVDs have become less pervasive, illicit cigarettes have become one of the most popular smuggled items, says Wong. The trade becomes particularly active in February whenever there is rumor of a possible tobacco tax hike.
Last year, the organization worked with Oxford Economics to release the “Asia-16 Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2014″ report, which showed that about one in four cigarettes consumed in Hong Kong comes from the black market, costing the government HK$2.5 billion in lost tax revenues.
Wong believes that enhancing criminal penalty can have more deterrence to the illicit traders.
“The enforcement agencies can invoke the Organized and Serious Crimes Ordinance. It’s a trump card to freeze the assets of criminal groups and confiscate all crime proceeds,” he says.
Such action is particularly effective against organized crime syndicates who smuggle goods from mainland China to Hong Kong through land crossings.