The Hong Kong Listening Post in the 1950s

Hong Kong was the best listening post into “Red China.” It was, as the long-distance telephone ad used to say, “The next best thing to being there.” The island-colony was roiling with action in 1953. Unlike on Taiwan, there were many trade and transportation links to the mainland, and because of its location, Hong Kong was a crossroads for Chinese of all stripes. It was a base for agents from China and Taiwan and, therefore, served as one of the few places where the two sides could rub elbows, and, if the situation called for it, pass on communications to each other’s governments. Wealthy capitalists from Shanghai sought refuge in Hong Kong after the Communist revolution and spent much of their time trying to find a way off the island. Furthermore, refugees were streaming in from the mainland. Since 1949, more than one million Chinese had arrived in the city and its surrounding territories. There were an estimated 300,000 squatters in Hong Kong and its territories. Most of the refugees, the majority of whom were farmers and laborers from southern China, came in search of work and a better livelihood. Amazingly, with its improving economy and free enterprise methods, Hong Kong was able to accommodate most of them….

I started out working with the Pao Mi Chu, Taiwan’s intelligence apparatus. I worked under “deep cover,” meaning that I kept my true identity a secret from the Chinese people with whom I worked. I used aliases when I contacted agents or met with counterparts in Taiwan intelligence. The one I used most often was “John Wright.” I would meet with agents in hotel rooms or in safe houses, apartments that had been scouted beforehand to make sure they were not under surveillance by the Communists’ huge underground apparatus in Hong Kong. We debriefed refugees and travelers to China, placed agents on ships going to Chinese ports, and helped establish a base in Macao to take advantage of the flow of Chinese between Macao and the mainland….

In the course of my work, I was learning that we could accomplish far more by debriefing travelers or people returning from China than we could by planting frightened resident agents in the country. The resident agents naturally tended to be fearful of getting caught. Travelers, on the other hand, moved more freely and without that fear. Using debriefings, I started to gather useful information for the CIA about what was going on in China. Unfortunately, in those days CIA was obsessed with the idea of a resident agent with a radio no matter what the level of his access or his ability to survive. They focused on process over substance.

SOURCE: China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, by James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley (Public Affairs, 2004), pp. 84-86

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