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.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others