Crossing The Line

13 minute read

Doctor Huang is a transplant specialist with a very busy calendar. In the run-up to Labor Day, the communist authorities of Shenzhen, Hong Kong’s border wonderland of sin and shopping, execute an array of criminals. This year they are taking aim at violent offenders and triad gangs, and that offers Huang a bumper crop of kidneys, livers and hearts for needy patients, many from Hong Kong. Getting a kidney from death row may sound merciless, but it’s swift, efficientpatients can be matched to donors in advanceand a bullet in the brain causes no damage to other organs. It’s a booming business: many execution areas have extraction clinics on-site.

Things aren’t bad for Zhang Jin, either. She’s a concubine, one of thousands of women from all over China who flock to Shenzhen to become second wives to Hong Kong businessmen. She got herself a sugar daddy who is richand tantalizingly old. When he dies, Zhang, 20, stands to inherit half his wealth (the rest will go to the legal wife across the border). But during the long stretches when he’s away, Zhang is bored, staying at home playing mah-jongg with other second wives and banking the $2,000 a month he gives her. “He is old, no energy,” she says. “Like my grandfather.” Hedging her bets, three times a week she slips on a miniskirt and heads out to the basement Moonlight Club, looking for someone a little younger and a lot richer. And of course, he’s got to come from Hong Kong.

Twin cities usually grow up together. For Hong Kong and its dark alter ego Shenzhen, the relationship is something more akin to step-twins. Shenzhen was virtually decreed into existence: in 1980 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping clicked his fingers and invited the people of dynamic, British-owned Hong Kong to make something of the 3.5 sq km stretch of fishing villages and rice paddies just over the border. What arose was a kind of twisted sister, a town of skyscrapers and sweatshops, laissez-faire business and institutionalized lust. Shenzhen is where Hong Kongers go to make love and make money, and a magnet for people from all over impoverished China, who sneak or bribe their way in. (Two-thirds of the population doesn’t have a residency permit.) It’s a city of big-time crime, beggar syndicates, drug trafficking, restaurants serving lobster sashimi to mafia-entrepreneursand a home to what the Hong Kong government says is a half-million illegitimate children. The population now totals 4 million, and the economy is growing at 31% a year. Call it China’s Tiajuana, with a dash of the Jetsons.

Hong Kong is now a part of China with its own laws, a set-up known as “one country-two systems.” Nowhere is the demarcation more striking than at its border with Shenzhena line that Hong Kong people can cross freely but most mainlanders can only gaze at. The one-way traffic has become a nonstop flood: up to 200,000 people a day, 100 million crossings a year, numbers likely to triple by 2010. (Currently the border is open 16 hours a day; some want it to be 24/7.) Hong Kong businessmen have poured $15 billion into 70,000 firms in the border province of Guangdong, much of it for the manufacturing that once drove the Hong Kong economy. Office workers are escaping Hong Kong’s ludicrous rents by moving to Shenzhen and accepting a 45-minute commute across the border.

Shenzhen is Hong Kong’s parallel universe: it has the energy of the megapolis across the border, the patented southern Chinese get-ahead ethos and a towering respect for the power of a buck. But thanks to loose laws, loose women and dirty officials, you can get anything you want: cheap labor, even cheaper Prada bags, pirated DVDs, ecstasy pills, one-night stands. (And people from across the border spent $846 million last year, 10% of Hong Kong’s total retail trade.) But once inside this looking- glass world, nothing is quite the genuine article. The Louis Vuitton bags are made in Guangdong; many of the impressive skyscrapers are empty; the women are lovely, but that beauty might have been bought from Shenzhen’s army of plastic surgeons. Even the money, Shenzhen’s raison d’etre, is suspect: local buses alone collect $160,000 in fake coins every year. Shenzhen has all the license, 24-hour fun and behind-the-set tragedy of the world’s worst border townsalbeit one with skyscrapers and a blizzard of cash.

The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, as the city is officially known, is literally at Hong Kong’s border. After immigration, a visitor walks across a narrow bridge spanning a stinking, black canalthe first whiff of something rotten in the airand steps directly into a city overeager to offer its wares. The first building to confront new arrivals is a six-storied, mirrored monument to China’s status as the world’s counterfeit capital. Shops display perfect replicas of Armani suits, Gucci handbags, Nike trainers, Rolex watches, Cartier jewelry, as well as racks of pirated videos and discs. Outside, televisions air graphic advertisements for clinics offering breast enlargements and other cosmetic surgeries. Dr. Cao Mengjun says his Fuhua Plastic and Aesthetic Hospital sees more than 2,000 people a year, half from Hong Kong. Cao is the inventor of “Amazing Gel,” a filling agent injected straight into the body, and he offers everything from freckle-removal and teeth-whitening to “maidenhead recovery.” Shenzhen’s health authorities list eye-widening as the most requested alteration: the city’s 1,600 cosmetic surgeons will open up an average 8,000 pairs a week. The look is big, brash and bold, the better to attract a visiting businessman.

The city is filled-to-bursting with goods and services for women. That’s because there are four women to every man. Some have come to be close to Hong Kong businessmen wanting a conveniently located partner. Others have followed the money to the nightclubs, bars and brothels that have popped up all over town. In 20 years, they have produced an estimated 520,000 bastard children, thousands of whom are fighting for Hong Kong residency. Last year, the All China Women’s Federation described the rise in the number of second wives as “a time bomb.”

Two years in Shenzhen has been an education for Zhang Jin, the concubine, a Mandarin speaker from Qingdao on China’s east coast. She learned Cantonese from her Hong Kong motor executive “husband” as well as some Japanese, Korean and English from other clients. The languages will come in handy, she says, when she opens her border beauty parlor. She is giving herself 10 years to save enough money from her other talent: picking up paying men. But competition is rough. The Moonlight’s chain-smoking madame, Zhou Min, says she has 200 girls on her books. And by midnight on a recent evening, the club has drawn only a few customers. They aren’t spending kings’ ransoms: Zhang charges $40 for an hour in a nearby hotel. “Hong Kong men come to Shenzhen to find girls because they’re cheaper,” says Madame Zhou. “For 10,000 yuan ($1,250) a month they can have a place and another wife.” Zhang claims her Hong Kong man’s wife knows all about her: “She is very open, she doesn’t mind.”

Keeping a concubine is illegal in Guangdong, but laws against that and anything else are openly flouted. For years Gavin Zheng, 32, was part of a thriving liquor-smuggling operation in the city. One of his special skills was relabeling cheap French red vins de table as upmarket brands. Customs knew just what he was up to: it oversaw the whole scam and took a cut. “No one got caught,” says Zheng. His gang would transport Hennessy or Bordeaux from Hong Kong to the border at Lo Wu, whisk them through the state-run duty free store, and wheel half of the consignment straight into the city without paying the mandatory 180% duty. Other gangs run cigarettes into Shenzhen, or, in the reverse direction, everything from heroin and methamphetamines (“ice”) to fake designer gear, cell phones, endangered species and forged credit cards. And, of course, illegal immigrants, who cross at Lo Wu or cram into sea containers to Hong Kong, the busiest port in the world.

Smuggling has gotten more dicey recently, and Zheng has quit his trade. China is trying to crack down on corruption: the former head of Shenzhen’s customs, Zhao Yucun, faces the death penalty for taking $1.2 million in bribes. At the same time, triads are muscling out independent operators all over the place. Working both sides of the border, gangs own perhaps half the nightclubs and bars in Shenzhen, often reportedly in partnership with officers of the People’s Liberation Army and the Public Security Bureau. They are into everything that pays: car theft, gambling, prostitution, kidnap for ransom and even, astonishingly, petrol. The bulk of the bribes received by convicted customs chief Zhao came from smuggling gasoline. The racket worked like this: a tanker anchors in international waters and waits for motor launches to gather round. An auction follows, and the buyers smuggle the fuel to shore in barrels to sell to the nearest state-run station, no import duty paid. “The whole of southern China is running on smuggled gas,” says Zheng. “And half the time, the government is controlling it.”

And then there are drugs: south China’s triads run a virtual drug superhighway from Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle via China to Hong Kongand then to anywhere in the world. In mid-April, Vancouver customs officials found 42 kg of heroin with a street value of $64 million stuffed inside cans of pineapple chunks. (The contraband had been canned in Guangdong and shipped through Hong Kong.) Every weekend night, tens of thousands of Hong Kong nightclubbers rip through an ever-expanding number of Shenzhen dance halls where ecstasy, ketamine and ice are freely available and thrillingly cheap. E sells for $10 and tranquilizer pills, which cost $4 in Hong Kong, can be bought for 10 cents. In the past three years, seizures of these drugs have risen tenfold. In a single weekend in March, police in Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong jointly raided 10,000 bars and nightclubs, arresting 1,411 people and seizing 307 kg of ice and 47,747 ecstasy pills. But Hong Kong police concede they’re unable to stop the flood of drugs from across the border, which are often hauled back by teenagers to pay for their weekends. “The sheer volume at the border crossing provides opportunities for traffickers,” says Paul Lewis, a senior inspector in the Hong Kong narcotics bureau.

Where there’s a buck to made, someone in Shenzhen will make it. Wiwijaya, an Indonesian-born ethnic Chinese, tells the harrowing story of his brother, who was suffering from renal failure. He ordered a replacement kidney for $25,000 and, as a 26-year-old, made the journey to southern China from Medan in 1996. The transplant was successful, but when he returned for an internal checkup last August something went terribly wrong. His stomach swelled up, his new kidney collapsed and he fell into a coma. A second transplant was ordered. “But the doctor had another plan,” says Wiwijaya. “He wanted to give the best kidney to whomever paid the best price.” Wiwijaya says his brother was given a lesser match. He died in January, a skeleton on a dialysis machine. “The doctor took his life,” Wiwijaya says. “Everybody in that hospital wants a fee for everything they do. They’re like vampires.”

Attorney Zhou Litai would agree. Zhou represents some of the most visible victims of Shenzhen’s march to prosperity. At his crumbling four-story home in the down-at-the-heel Shenzhen suburb of Longgang, 40 of his clients, all amputees, live six to a bunk-bedded room. They lost their arms or legs in machinery at local factories set up by Hong Kong and Taiwanese firms. None has an artificial limb and all received derisory compensation, generally a one-off payment of around $1,000. Official figures show there are 13,000 serious work injuries each year in Bao An county, which includes Shenzhen. Zhou, a 46-year-old former brick factory worker, has taken 600 cases since 1997, winning payouts of up to $99,000. He may be the last hope for these workers: two other Guangdong lawyers doing similar work were murdered two years ago.

But Zhou’s effortsby midday 20 prospective clients are waiting in his sitting roomhave left him exhausted, bad-tempered and $25,000 in debt from handouts and unpaid fees. “Places like Shenzhen are built on sweatshops,” he growls. “Old machinery, no training, 14 hours a day, 450 yuan ($56) a month, ineffective safeguardsthat’s the secret of China’s economic ‘miracle.’ The government knows this. So the government protects the bosses and does not enforce the law.” The result, he says, is a rising swell of anger directed at the government and the Communist Party. Lai Nilang, 19, slaps the scarred stump of his right arm, crushed four days into his job in a computer-chip factory. “The government doesn’t care about us, only money,” he murmurs. “People hate them.” Zhou looks at his young client, gauging his loathing. “If you neglect the people, then the balance of society is upset. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

The lawyer’s warning is echoed by the few people in Shenzhen who worry about the underdeveloped conscience of a hurried Hong Kong clone. He Qinglian, a 47-year-old Shenzhen economic researcher and journalist, wrote a pamphlet in March last year that detailed state corruption. For that public service she has been banned from publishing and is watched day and night by police, but is unfazed, saying Shenzhen provides the perfect “window” for her research. “Rich people are getting richer and the poor poorer,” she says. “The poor have no rights and are forced into crime, killing, stealing and hijacking to make money. I’ve met families who are selling their babies$750 for a boy and $250 for a girlto rich families who want more. How desperate do you have to be to sell your own child?”

But desperation is only a tile in the gaudy Shenzhen mosaic. Most only see the opportunities, the money flow, the hope reflected from the city’s new skyscrapers. These days, in fact, most migrants from elsewhere in China stop at Shenzhen and no longer try to sneak into Hong Kong. Proof is apparent at the modest chain- and barbed-wire fence separating the two cities in the Mai Po marshes, west of Lo Wu. This may be the most closely controlled internal border in the world. But five policemen on mountain bikes, plus three on video surveillance, are able to handle the job of patrolling 4 km of a wire barrier they concede can be scaled in 12 seconds. The number of captured illegal immigrants fell from 16,000 in 1991 to 9,000 last year. Hong Kong police superintendent Hoe Tak-yan talks about phasing out all patrols in five to 10 years, even of dismantling the fence. “Living standards are getting closer and closer together,” he says. Indeed, the border is becoming a dangerous blur. Last August, Yu Man-hon, an autistic 15-year-old boy, slipped away from his mother in Hong Kong and found his way to Lo Wu. Detained on the mainland and interrogated back in Hong Kong, he nevertheless crossed into Shenzhen without identification papers or even the power of speech. His parents are still looking for him. Just a few steps from his hometown, Shenzhen had swallowed him.

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