Chinese border officers have begun routinely searching the phones of people who enter mainland China from Hong Kong, raising concerns that Beijing is trying to identify travellers sympathetic to the territory’s protest movement and further control what its people see about the unrest.
During the phone checks, officers look through photos, messages and other apps, three people whose devices were searched told The New York Times. As far as the travellers could tell, the people selected for extra inspections were mostly young men. The demonstrations have been largely youth-driven.
The searches have come to light as the protests, now in their third month, have grown increasingly violent and disruptive, drawing sharp denunciations from the mainland Chinese leadership and raising the possibility that it might crack down on the demonstrators.
Chinese paramilitary forces have gathered in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. On Thursday, tarp-covered troop transports and armoured personnel carriers were seen parked outside a Shenzhen stadium.
The travellers whom The Times interviewed entered the mainland from West Kowloon station in Hong Kong, where the territory connects to China’s vast high-speed rail network, and where part of the terminal is under mainland Chinese jurisdiction.
But Au Nok-hin, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s legislature, said he had heard in the past week or two about travellers’ phones being checked at other crossings along the border, where there is a large flow of people in both directions every day.
“The ideological control from China is very tough,” Au said.
The Chinese authorities are not alone in demanding to examine travellers’ cellphones. Warrantless searches of phones and laptops by United States border agents have grown rapidly in recent years.
Even before train service began last year at the gleaming, clamshell-shaped station in the West Kowloon district, it attracted controversy over the Hong Kong’s government decision to allow mainland Chinese officers to enforce mainland law there.
The plan raised concerns among democracy supporters in Hong Kong about a further loss of autonomy for the territory – the same issue that has been one of the animating forces behind this summer’s antigovernment protests.
Billy Li, a representative for the Progressive Lawyers Group, which promotes democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, compared the situation to the case of local booksellers who vanished several years ago.
The men were involved in an industry that produced racy potboilers about the mainland’s Communist Party leadership. It turned out that they had been taken into custody in mainland China. They gave televised confessions, which one later said had been forced.
The incidents “caused a huge outcry about mainland law being applied in Hong Kong,” Li said. “Now we see it daily in West Kowloon station.”
“What we were concerned about has now become a reality,” he said.
On the mainland Chinese side of the station Thursday, travellers described the extra inspection they underwent.
After presenting their IDs, they said, they were taken into a small area enclosed by black canvas panels. There, several uniformed officers were seated at tables, and travellers were asked to unlock their cellphones. Some officers flipped through the phones, while others checked bags and luggage.
At no point did the officers say what they were looking for, the travellers said. All three said that this was the first time the authorities had checked their phones while crossing into mainland China from Hong Kong.
It is not clear, from the travellers’ accounts, what the precise purpose of the search was. The officers did not force travellers to delete all images of the protests, although they did seem to keep records of whose phones they searched.
When asked why travellers’ phones were being checked, an employee at the train station said the searches were only for “bad people.” He did not elaborate.
“I’m not happy about it,” said one of the travellers, Hsu Tzu Hung, a science teacher in Shenzhen. “What’s the legal basis for this?”
Hsu, 22, had just flown into Hong Kong on Thursday morning after a trip back to his native Taiwan.
The officers looked at Hsu’s messages on WeChat, a social app that is ubiquitous in mainland China, but did not open the Line messenger, which is popular in Taiwan. Hsu said he was allowed to leave after around 10 minutes.
Arain Lin, a 26-year-old native of Fujian province in China, was travelling back to the mainland Thursday after vacationing in Hong Kong. He said the phone inspection seemed “targeted” at anything connected to the demonstrations.
While his device was being checked, he said, officers seemed particularly interested in the videos he had taken the previous day at Hong Kong’s airport, where he dropped off a friend and happened to spot some demonstrations.
The officers at West Kowloon station asked Lin why he had taken the videos. He told them what he said was the truth: “I was just curious.”
In the end, the officers did not order Lin to delete the videos. Lin said he could not remember how long the whole thing lasted. He had been too nervous to pay attention.
A Hong Kong resident who gave only his surname, Chen, told The Times that when officers searched his cellphone Thursday, they asked why he didn’t have many photos. He told them it was his backup device.
Wary that such checks might occur, Chen said he always made sure to leave his main phone at home when he travels to mainland China and to check what he brings in his bags.
Not that he is happy about having to take such precautions. “It’s a pain,” he said.
Chen, 25, was going to the mainland only for the day to visit relatives, so he did not have to carry much luggage, a fact for which he was grateful in light of the extra border inspection.
He said he could only guess what happened to people who were found to have sensitive materials on their devices.
For his backup phone, Chen has gone so far as to choose a wallpaper meant to dispel the authorities’ suspicions: a map of China with yellow stars on a red background, just like the Chinese flag.