It sounds like a scene straight out of an action flick: speedboats flying across the channel between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland under the clandestine cover of darkness, fleeing police hot on their tail.
But in this story, these boats carry an unlikely bounty: stashes of frozen meat, often dubiously refrigerated and unregulated.
As China’s economy has grown, so has its appetite for meat. The country’s meat consumption has been steadily rising since the 1960s. To satisfy the increasing demand, smugglers are sneaking millions of pounds of pork, poultry, and fish into the country via Hong Kong — sometimes with deadly consequences.
In September, a police officer was killed during an attempt to intercept a smuggling vessel in Hong Kong’s waters. She and three other colleagues fell into the sea when their boat capsized. Last January, three customs officers died when their patrol boat crashed while in pursuit of a smugglers’ craft, per the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP).
On a typical night, there are anywhere between 80 and 100 boats waiting to ferry smuggled meats over to mainland China. Smugglers used to employ larger vessels, but the Triad gangs that control the waterway — believed to be Sun Yee On, 14K, and Wo Shing Wo, according to the South China Morning Post — have discovered that speedboats allow them to better evade authorities.
In early October, after months of watching boats flagrantly carry goods to the mainland, Hong Kong authorities organized a mass crackdown on the meat smuggling rings based in the city. The first haul involved 1,700 tonnes of frozen meat worth $64 million, per the SCMP.
Then on October 19, police conducted a second bust at a container yard in Lok Ma Chau, a district near the mainland Chinese border. This time, authorities found 200 containers containing 5,600 tonnes of undeclared meat products. The authorities estimated the value of the shipment, which included beef, pork, lamb, and offal, to be more than $257 million.
But despite the crackdown, smugglers continue to take the risk in order to profit off of China’s increasing reliance on meat in their diets.
China’s insatiable appetite for meat is fueling the black market business
hina is the number one global consumer of meat, but it wasn’t always that way.
According to the Center for Strategic Studies, China consumed around 7 million tonnes of meat in 1975. By 2018, that number had reached 86.5 million tonnes.
In 2020, the country imported around 5 million tonnes of meat to help meet growing demand.
According to Oxford University’s Our World in Data, the average Chinese person ate less than 11 pounds of meat every year back in the 1960s. But this number quadrupled by the late 1980s and reached 138 pounds in 2021. This average annual per-capita meat consumption in China is set to increase by an additional 60 pounds by 2030, per estimates from advocacy group WildAid.
“One could argue that Chinese just want to enjoy the kind of life Westerners have for years. In the end, per capita meat consumption in China is still half that of the United States,” Pan Genxing, director of the Institute of Resources, Environment, and Ecosystem of Agriculture at Nanjing Agricultural University, told Mother Jones.
“As household incomes have risen in China during the past two decades, so has meat consumption, mainly because more households can now afford to. There has for a long time been a suppressed demand for animal meat, but due to the relatively low household incomes, many families could not afford to purchase meat often,” Teng told Insider.
Teng explained that for those who can afford it, pork is the preferred meat in China, followed by chicken, then fish. He added that this love for meat might be attributed to how China was for a long time a poor country, making meat consumption a potent sign of wealth and a marker of one being able to afford a higher standard of living.
“Eating meat is popular mostly in the richer coastal regions and also among the middle class in inland cities. That said, many parts of northern China with grasslands have always had a higher consumption of animal protein from sheep,” Teng said.
But as meat consumption has risen, so have problems within the meat supply.
Around the same time, a brewing trade war between China and the US saw pork products from the US slapped with an additional 25% tariff. China also imposed tighter import restrictions and high tariffs — some as high as 80% or 90% — on several countries that openly criticized the government.
The HKFP reported that these tariffs have had an effect downstream, with meat prices in the Chinese mainland increasing 87.6% year over year from June 2019 to June 2020. Beef and lamb prices went up by 21.2% and 11.2%, respectively. Pork prices saw the most considerable increase, with a whopping 135.2% rise in prices within a year.
With all these additional costs to procuring meat legally, it’s no wonder that some are looking for a cheaper way to procure products.
‘Rat mutton’ and ‘zombie meat’ have plagued China’s meat supply, say customs officials
The unregulated nature of smuggled food means that consumers don’t always end up with what’s advertised.
In 2013, the Chinese authorities seized 20,000 tonnes of illegal meat and arrested 904 people in connection with a scheme to pass off meat from rats and foxes as mutton.
Two years later, authorities seized another 100,000 tonnes of frozen meat as it was smuggled into China by local gangs.
Some of the meat they intercepted was “zombie meat” — frozen meat products that dated back decades. In one case, customs agents uncovered frozen chicken feet dating back to 1967.
State-linked media outlet China Daily reported in 2015 that the Chinese government’s investigations rooted out a long supply chain, with gang members purchasing meat for cheap in countries including the US, Brazil, and Ukraine, then sending it on to Hong Kong.
As might be expected, meat smugglers are often not particularly concerned with the quality of the meat they’re ferrying across borders.
Some smugglers had stopped bothering to refrigerate the meat altogether, wrapping chunks of Brazilian beef and other meat products up in old cloth bags and backpacks to evade customs agents, a 2015 Reuters investigation found.
And in 2016, Chinese authorities based in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong nabbed 16 suspects for trying to move 1,000 tons of meat and offal from Brazil, Thailand, and the US into the Chinese market. Much of the meat had been soaked in bleach by the smugglers — a method to both increase the weight of the haul and extend the product’s expiration date.
Law enforcement is pulling out all the stops to crack down on Hong Kong’s smuggling gangs, with little success
uthorities in Hong Kong told Insider they are doing their best to clamp down on meat smuggling, even as the smuggling groups have developed more sophisticated systems.
According to a report from Hong Kong investigative journalist group Factwire, smugglers are now conducting their operations from Yau Ma Tei and Stonecutters Island off the coast of Hong Kong. Meats are first loaded onto offshore barges at Stonecutters Island. Then dozens of speedboats quickly zip over, stopping at Nei Lingding Island before traveling to the mainland Chinese port city of Shenzhen.
Factwire’s journalists observed at least two dozen barges and one hundred speed boats on a single night in March 2020.
“Hong Kong Customs is committed to combating smuggling activities. Based on an effective risk-assessment strategy, Customs officers vigorously conduct checks on passengers, cargo, postal packets, and conveyances at various control points and sea boundary for combating smuggling of contraband including smuggled frozen meat,” a spokesman for the Hong Kong Customs told Insider.
“The department also conducts regular maritime and land patrols within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and takes appropriate enforcement action when necessary,” the spokesman said, noting that the department managed to recover 3,344 tonnes of meat in 2020.
He added that in Hong Kong, any person found guilty of importing or exporting cargo without the appropriate declarations or manifests could be fined $2 million Hong Kong dollars (US$256,652) and jailed for up to seven years.
Yet, despite these potential penalties, many smugglers remain undeterred.
One meat smuggler told Factwire that the operations are now so extensive that losing a vessel or two to customs agents isn’t a big deal.
“Customs did catch one or two boats, but they couldn’t stop all of them,” the anonymous smuggler said. “What’s the big deal with being caught? It’s just goods on one of the many boats anyway.”