A group of 11 mainland residents were intercepted by Shenzhen customs officers on the night of Thursday, September 10 as they attempted to cross the border into Hong Kong illegally, mainland media have reported.

Members of the group, the youngest of whom was just 17 years old, paid RMB6,000 each to a snakehead smuggler to bring them across the border.

The case stirred considerable debate on Chinese social media, where many web users took offence to the use of the phrase “smuggle across” which was used to describe the border crossing attempt.

On news portal NetEase, the top comment read, “Going to Hong Kong is called stealing out? In any case, [it’s] one country now.”

The most popular comment on Sina News similarly asked how the term “steal across” could be used to describe movement within a single country, stating that it “is clearly the language used between two countries.”

“It’s been 18 years since the handover,” another chimed in. “The British can come and go [to Hong Kong] freely and yet we have to sneak across.”

After the initial indignation, however, most web users simply reacted with confusion.

“What decade is this?” asked a popular comment on Sina, “mainlanders are still stealing over to Hong Kong?”

“Entry permits for Hong Kong and Macau are so easy to get now,” a NetEase commenter observed, “why be so sneaky about it?”

Mainland media reports have not revealed where the group, consisting of seven men and four women, originated from or why they did not go through legal channels to make the move into Hong Kong.

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Ryan Kilpatrick

Ryan Kilpatrick is a local writer, journalist and editor. Formerly National Online Editor for the That's magazine group in China, his work on the history and politics of the region has earned him the CEFC Award in Modern China Studies and has also appeared in China Economic Review, Asian Studies Review, China Green News, e-International Relations, Shanghaiist and various publications at his alma mater, the University of Hong Kong, where he is currently enrolled in the Master of Journalism programme.