Hong Kong’s “First Spy”

An entry from Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer, by Peter Mattis and Matt Brazil,  published in November 2019 by the Naval Institute Press.  See “New Book…” page link at top right for more information.

Above: John Tsang (Zeng Zhaoke) attending Chinese National Day celebrations in Beijing, 1 October 1962.  In the background at right, wearing a hat is Rewi Alley.  Photo credit: Wen Wei Po News (Hong Kong)  

Zeng Zhaoke (曾昭科. Aka: John Tsang, Cantonese: Tsang Chao-ko, aka: Tsang Chiu-fo. 1923-2014)

John Tsang was the most senior ethnic Chinese officer in the Hong Kong Police Force, and a noted marksman, when he was arrested on 3 October 1961, accused of leading a Chinese Communist espionage ring. In a misnomer of sorts, he was dubbed “Hong Kong’s first spy” because, before then, none had been publicly named.

Zeng (Tsang) was born in Guangzhou of Manchu parentage. He attended primary school in Hong Kong and university in Japan, where he was exposed to Marxist writings; he may have been recruited into the CCP at that time. In 1947, Zeng arrived in Hong Kong and began working for the police.[1]

British and Chinese sources carry few details of the work done by Zeng’s ring. However, his organization may have been the source of important intelligence, including the nature of the colony’s defenses and internal security, and on matters such as the investigative findings by British authorities concerning the 1955 bombing carried out by Taiwan agents in Hong Kong, targeting Zhou Enlai [2] (see the Kashmir Princess Bombing). Research has not uncovered their names or positions, but fourteen “foreign nationals” were arrested at the same time as Zeng, and four of these were expelled with him to China.[3]

Zeng’s access was probably quite broad. He was a rising star in the Hong Kong Police Force, and according to one Chinese media report was the senior CCP agent in Hong Kong.  At one point a bodyguard for the Hong Kong governor, Zeng became the deputy commandant of the Police Training School at Aberdeen[4] in 1960.

On 1 October 1961, a CCP intelligence courier entering Hong Kong from Macau was discovered carrying microfilm and a large amount of cash, after he was observed by an off duty Hong Kong Police detective transferring a wad of $100 banknotes from one pocket to the other. Under interrogation, the courier revealed his affiliation with mainland Chinese authorities and his destination: the home of a woman later determined to be Zeng’s mother. [5]

Zeng was arrested two days later and interrogated for almost two months. Instead of placing him on trial, Hong Kong authorities deported Zeng to China on 30 November. Due in part to his fluency in Japanese and English and owing to academic training in Japan and Britain, Zeng became a professor of English at Jinan University in Guangzhou, where he worked before and after the Cultural Revolution (research has not revealed Zeng’s fate during that society-wide upheaval). In his later years, Zeng was head of the English department at Jinan University in Guangzhou and a member of the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress.[6]

According to one Chinese media report that lauds Zeng’s accomplishments, he also “assumed remote personal command of the Hong Kong and Macau intelligence networks” after arriving in Guangzhou,[7] though it remains unstated how long he held such duties and where he spent most of his work day.

Zeng’s funeral honors in 2014 included a wreath from CCP head Xi Jinping and indications that he had worked for the Party before the 1949 Communist victory.[8] If Zeng was already an underground or intelligence operative when he arrived in 1947, the party may have instructed him to obtain employment that included useful access to secrets, such as with the police.

In the absence of details about Zeng’s specific activities, one can consider why the British decided to deport him as an alien rather than place him on trial as a British subject. Zeng’s arrest and deportation in October – November 1961 came in the midst of China’s great famine. In November 1960 China began supplying Hong Kong with much needed fresh water, and in July 1961, Chinese authorities began to allow easier access to Hong Kong by mainland refugees fleeing famine. [9] The circumstances may have allowed the Chinese side to pressurize the British on the Zeng matter, among others, at a time when they were considering what to do with “Hong Kong’s first spy.” They may also have been inclined to rid themselves as quietly as possible of a galling embarrassment.

In some sense, this case carries parallels that of Larry Wu-tai Chin (Jin Wudai), who according to his confession was recruited by CCP intelligence at about the same time as Zeng, and instructed to apply for a job at an American diplomatic post in China. He used that position to gain eventual employment in CIA.  The case of Glenn Duffie Shriver also carries this signature of a trained agent being “thrown into” (da jinqu) a target organization. Foreign businesses in China that have valuable intellectual property should be aware of this technique and pursue thorough background checks when appropriate.

[1] Some sources date Zeng’s entry into the Hong Kong Police as 1947, and some as 1948. “Zao zhu chujing Xianggang di yi jiandie Zeng Zhaoke qushi…”[Zeng Zhaoke, Hong Kong’s first spy who was expelled, dies] Apple Nextmedia, 29 December 2014 http://hk.apple.nextmedia.com/news/art/20141229/18984529; Gene Gleason, Hong Kong (New York: John Day Company, 1963), p. 109.

[2] Steve Tsang, “Target Zhou Enlai: The ‘Kashmir Princess’ Incident of 1955,” in The China Quarterly, No. 139 (Sep 1994), p. 775.

[3] Gleason, op. cit, p. 109.

[4] “High profile funeral for ‘James Bond’” in The Standard (Hong Kong), 30 December 2014. http://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news.php?id=152765&story_id=43611882&d_str=20141230&sid=4

[5] Apple Nextmedia, op. cit, 24 December 2014; Gleason, op. cit, p. 109. The courier was rumored to have been carrying instructions from a controller in Macau. There may be more to this story since carrying a lot of cash would not seem unusual for someone arriving from Macau, a gambling haven.

[6] Wen Hui Po (Wenhui Bao), 26 December 2006, http://paper.wenweipo.com/2006/12/26/CH0612260002.htm

[7] Ibid.

[8] Guan Qingning, “Wo suo zhidaode Zeng Zhaoke xiansheng” [Zeng Zhaoke as I knew him]. Ming Pao, 19 January 2015, news.mingpao.com

[9] Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution 3: The Coming of the Cataclysm, 1961-1966 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 205-206. Gleason, op. cit., pp. 110-111.