Zhang, in his 40s, is from Sichuan. Ten years ago, he was severely burnt in a New Year firecracker accident, which left visible scars from his cheeks to his chest, and all over his back. It is his first time in Hong Kong, and he came because he heard that “he could make much more here than in mainland China”.

That night, he was one of at least four beggars stationed on the footbridge walkways from Soho to the Star Ferry. Dozens of others were sitting in the tunnels of Tsim Sha Tsui, or kneeling among flocks of pedestrians in Mong Kok. Disability or disfiguration was the common theme among many of them.

Officially, begging is illegal in Hong Kong. According to the 1977 Summary Offences Ordinance (Cap 228 s 26A), it even carries a prison sentence of 1-12 months. Yet, police have observed a “significant increase” in begging since the implementation of the Individual Visit Scheme for mainland Chinese travelling to Hong Kong, in July 2003.

Netizens have called upon Hong Kongers not to give alms, warning that criminal syndicates may be the ultimate beneficiaries. How much do we actually know about beggars?

beggar central hong kong
A beggar in Central. Photo: Fenwoonmoa via Wikimedia.

Beggar tourism?

Last year, a Cable TV feature documented the experiences of several mainland Chinese beggars. It suggested that they arrived in Hong Kong as part of so-called tourist groups – the “L-visa” – as this was the only type of permit available to Chinese living outside of major urban centres. The L-visa allowed these groups to stay for up to seven days, sometimes in disguised guesthouses.

After accounting for food, shelter and travel costs, one man was estimated to have earned over HK$1,000 a week, the equivalent of a month’s work in mainland China. But some others are evidently long-term dwellers of Hong Kong.

Following two beggars – an erhu player and his crippled partner – from Central onto a cross-harbour bus, I arrived at an old private residential building in Hung Hom, near a cluster of funeral parlours. Local residents informed me that five disabled men, including the two who just entered, moved into a single 300 square-feet apartment a few months ago.

Nobody knew where they came from, as they did not speak Cantonese. Are they Hong Kong residents, or are they overstaying their visas?

beggar hong kong
A beggar on Hong Kong’s street. Photo: El Freddy via Flickr.

Beggar syndicates?

During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), authorities encouraged the formation of beggar gangs led by regional chiefs. All beggars had an identity card worn on their waists, denoting appearance, disability, and the gang to which they belonged. In this way, authorities could monitor the vagrant population and prevent unwanted gatherings.

Yet stories of beggar gangs today can be extremely harrowing. According to a professional beggar interviewed by Phoenix TV, syndicates in Dongguan kidnapped then purposely disfigured their victims, sometimes with bricks, so that their wounds would elicit sympathy from donors.

Children as young as three months would be fed tranquilisers before their morning, afternoon or evening “shifts” to prevent them from escaping or causing a scene. Dying beggars would be abandoned by a river.

In Hong Kong, noticeable patterns in begging locations and features suggest there is a degree of organisation. Cable TV reported that people with disabilities were recruited from all over China, through mobile apps such as QQ, to beg in Hong Kong. Ringleaders operating from Shenzhen would provide food and shelter for the seven days, and then take a 50 percent cut of the earnings.

hong kong beggar
An elderly beggar in Mongkok. Photo: Henrik Berger Jørgensen via Flickr.

So far, there have been no confirmed instances where beggars in Hong Kong were intentionally maimed. Yet some are clearly coerced, such as a six-year old burn victim from Guangzhou who claimed to Apple Daily he was “brought here by his mother” and “very hungry”, after the mother was arrested on the footbridges of Wanchai in 2010.

What is the government doing?

Over the past few nights, I observed on several occasions that policemen have marched straight past beggars without taking any action. Why are they so lenient?

When the Individual Visit Scheme was first implemented, over a hundred mainland Chinese and several dozen Hong Kong residents were arrested every year for begging offences. Note that figures were released on the request of legislators, amidst public concern during the first few years of the Individual Visit Scheme. The Security Bureau has not responded to a request for updated statistics on begging-related offences.

Yet invariably, more locals are prosecuted than mainlanders. According to protocol, police can only prosecute non-Hong Kong residents if there is evidence that they arrived with the intent to beg, a charge which is difficult to prove. If not, they are handed over to the Immigration Department for deportation.

Therefore, unless faced with complaints, arresting beggars becomes a fruitless activity for the authorities.

busker hong kong busking beggar syndicate
Buskers in Mongkok.

The increased popularity of busking and street performance complicates the situation further. Although the government claims that the law “does not prohibit street performances”, authorities have occasionally invoked the same Summary Offences Ordinance to disperse or prosecute street performers.

Where do we draw the line between busking and begging? As an example, an amputee singer appeals to bystanders through both talent and pity.

Hong Kong’s begging phenomenon seems to be diverse, almost like the city itself. It is an economy that revolves around grey areas of legal ambiguity, but at least it is stable one.

Perhaps the syndicates are satisfied with their profits, the authorities have given up on active prosecution, the pedestrians can tolerate what they see, and the most vulnerable beggars cannot find a voice.

Update (August 11, 2015): A spokesperson for the Security Bureau said that police made 69 arrests of mainlanders for begging-related offences last year, 62 of which resulted in prosecution. One Hong Kong resident was arrested and prosecuted during the same period.

These statistics suggest that police action against beggars have become much more focused since the early days of the Individual Visit Scheme. During the years 2005 to 2007 there had respectively been 175, 156 and 55 arrests of mainland beggars, leading to merely 14, 17 and 14 prosecutions.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.