A former CIA officer, who has been working for Christie’s auction house in Hong Kong, has been arrested for allegedly leaking the names of Chinese informants to Beijing.
Jerry Chun Shing Lee – also known as Zhen Cheng Li – was picked up at Kennedy Airport in New York on Monday after an extensive FBI investigation.
The astounding revelation that Lee may have been divulging information to China on CIA agents embedded there has shed further light on Hong Kong’s infamy as a global espionage hub.
The New York Times first dropped the bombshell on Tuesday in what is reportedly one of the biggest setbacks in the CIA’s operations in a decade. It said the suspected mole allegedly fed Beijing names and identities of US spies, leading to “executions and imprisonment of some of the CIA’s most valuable assets in the nation.”
Lee had been residing in Hong Kong after ending his 13-year tenure as a CIA case officer in 2007, until US Federal Bureau of Investigation agents arrested him in New York City on Monday not long after he disembarked from a flight that originated in Hong Kong.
He will face charges of unlawful retention of classified information and a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison if convicted.
Christie’s Hong Kong, Lee’s last employer during his stay in the city, has confirmed to local media that it has suspended its contract with him. He had worked as the auction house’s security manager.
On one occasion Lee was seen coordinating security for the pre-sale exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in Hong Kong last October. Hong Kong-based arts auction website The Value has also released a photo of Lee taken during a Christie’s event.
“The security manager is a well-built man and he seems friendly and amiable during our visits or at auctions. He always responded with politeness whenever he saw anyone not following rules,” noted the article that contained the picture.
A former superintendent with the Hong Kong Police Force’s VIP Protection Unit, who once had a discussion with Lee inside coffee shop in the city’s Causeway Bay district regarding security arrangements for an auction event in 2015, told Hong Kong-based daily paper Ming Pao that Lee didn’t hide his identity during the meeting and that the former CIA operative didn’t look at all suspicious. He was a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy, the paper was told.
The paper further noted that Lee was well versed in Cantonese and had right of abode in the city.
The South China Morning Post reported on Friday that prior to his post at Christie’s, Lee spent his first two years in Hong Kong working for Japan Tobacco International’s team against counterfeit cigarettes, but the stint ended after the company suspected him of leaking information to mainland Chinese authorities.
With further details of Lee’s career with the CIA and evidence of his spying for China continuing to emerge – one being the revelation that he secretively maintained two memos containing highly classified names and contacts of US agents in China – some observers now wonder what Lee’s modus operandi was and if he actually worked for either Washington or Beijing while in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, a city of spies?
But one thing is certain: Hongkongers are no longer strangers to the whirlpools of intrigue exposed by several espionage and counterespionage cloak-and-dagger plots that have taken place in the city, involving the US, mainland China and several other powers.
Hong Kong had become one of the world’s three espionage capitals, together with Lisbon and Casablanca, in the thick of World War II, and now the city is still at the forefront of underground rivalry, with contesting parties taking advantage of the city’s free-port status and a lack of anti-espionage laws and national-security legislation.
During the Edward Snowden saga in 2013, the defected CIA contractor was able to enter Hong Kong with ease and leave the territory of his own accord within his granted period of stay.
In spite of Washington’s repeated prodding that he be apprehended, local police could not arrest him, since he had not committed any crime in the city and there is no Hong Kong legislation that defines espionage as a crime.
Beijing remained silent throughout, though it must have been tipped off that a fugitive former US agent was at large in Hong Kong.
Snowden subsequently revealed to British newspaper The Guardian that the CIA operated a bureau at the US Consulate General in Hong Kong.
Agents from the United States are not the only ones active in Hong Kong, of course.
Beijing has remained pragmatic since the 1997 handover when it comes to the many foreign undercover agents operating in the special administrative region.
But the laissez-faire policy doesn’t mean Beijing hasn’t wanted a spy web of its own in the city. Activists, politicians, lawmakers and tycoons are among Beijing’s eyes and ears there.
State-owned China News Service reported in May 2014 that a Chinese national was sentenced 10 years in jail for stealing documents and sneaking into barracks to take photos of sensitive military installations in Guangdong.
It was said that all the files were passed to a middleman in Hong Kong who forwarded them to foreign agents for analysis.
More than 40 people in 20 Chinese provinces were arrested by local national-security bureaus in connection with the case.