Spies are trained to see things differently from everybody else. They see people differently, they see the streets differently and they see world events differently.
Civil unrest in Hong Kong is becoming worse. What started as a simple protest against a piece of legislation is rapidly disintegrating into a direct challenge to Communist rule. The Communist Party leadership cannot afford to tolerate this state of affairs for long in case the unrest spread to mainland China. The economic revolution has created a small but powerful middle class. The increased wealth has led to greater levels of satisfaction, but as society advances so people learn to think for themselves. Should they see the struggle of the people of Hong Kong and begin to sympathise with them, there could be serious trouble for the Communist leadership.
The people of Hong Kong have been warned. Already there has been televised coverage of elite Chinese troops moving into Hong Kong barracks. They have been shown practising their attacks on demonstrators (under the guise of restoring order). The danger signs could not be clearer. China may be patient, but, as the events of Tiananmen Square amply demonstrated, when the Chinese Communist leadership finally decides to move, they will be utterly ruthless. Western powers will complain, but they will not move to help because Hong Kong is firmly in China’s sphere of influence.
However, whether or not China does send troops into Hong Kong is not a matter that concerns intelligence agencies. For them, the Communists may come, they may not. But in the meantime there is something else in Hong Kong: opportunity.
If China does move militarily against Hong Kong then it is likely that the movement of Westerners will be even more strictly regulated than before. Until that time there is a chance. There are a lot of disgruntled citizens. Amongst them somewhere there will be targets for recruitment. Intelligence services will be moving fast to seize this limited window of opportunity. They will be looking to create what are in effect, “stay behind” assets should the shadow of Communist rule close over the island. Even if the Communists do not come, now is still an excellent time to make contact with those who are less than happy with Communist rule.
Of course, Western intelligence agencies should have been doing this for some time already. One should always recruit assets against the prospect of “a rainy day”. But no-one is perfect. And even though Chinese counter-espionage services will be at peak alert, there is still time to do some work.
But what assets to select? This is a targeting officer’s job. Certainly not the leaders of the protest movement (such as they are – the demonstrators claim that no-one really leads the movement). Those who speak in favour of the demonstrators are also out of bounds. They are brave people, but far too visible. Nor can anyone who has close contacts with any Western NGO or other body be selected. Dual nationality citizens are also out of the picture. They might be good for occasional courier work, but not for long term deployment behind enemy lines. The job of selection is tricky. Targeting, as it is known, is highly specialised work. Each service only has a limited number of officers in the field, so you cannot waste their time with poor prospects.
The recruitment targets have to be those who appear to be loyal or at the very least have kept their heads down. But they must also be people who secretly despise what the Communist government is doing – and what they may do. It is hard, but these selection skills were honed during the Cold War when similar types of recruitment targets had to be found. In espionage, officers with these skills are always in demand.
In Hong Kong, the game is afoot…