Gabrielle Jaffe freelance journalist Beijing China

A soldier examines the secret tunnel running beneath the Hong Kong border. Credit: Getty Images

An underground smugglers’ tunnel equipped with lights and a rail track to transport goods from mainland China to Hong Kong has been uncovered by Chinese police.

The entrance to the 40-metre underground passage was discovered by border police under a garage in Changling, a small village in a remote part of Shenzhen. It stretched under a river and into Hong Kong.

Clearly the work of professionals cashing in on the lucrative goods-trafficking trade between the mainland and Hong Kong, the tunnel, at 0.8 metres wide and one metre high, was big enough for an adult to crawl through.

A group of smugglers were caught hiding in a cluster of tall reeds beside the border river dividing the mainland from Hong Kong. Inside the garage, officers found digging tools and linen bags that were being used to slowly transport excavated soil offsite without attracting attention. The tunnel, discovered last week, was destroyed on Tuesday.

Although the project was estimated to have cost three million yuan (£300,000) and taken four months to build, officers said that the smugglers could easily recover the cost of their investment with just a few trips across the border.

Tariff differences between the mainland and Hong Kong, which is a free port, make smuggling highly profitable. An Ipad 2, for example, costs 2,888 yuan (£290) in China — 20 per cent more than in the special administrative region.

Authorities believe that gangs intended to use the tunnel to import mobile phones and other electrical goods into Hong Kong. Under Chinese customs regulations, goods worth 5,000 yuan or less that are brought in for personal use are exempt from border taxes, but certain categories of goods — including tobacco, alcohol, phones and microcomputers — are still subject to taxes.

There has been a roaring underground trade in smuggled electronics, baby milk powder and other desirables in recent years. Multiple-entry tourist visas introduced in 2009 have made it easy for Shenzhen residents to go back and forth to Hong Kong several times a day — and among them are the smugglers.

Such traders have sparked the ire of Hong Kong residents who are faced with increasingly empty store shelves and rising prices. Some have protested in the streets and online. On one Facebook page, locals have posted pictures shaming alleged smugglers. “A shameless locust trader puts four lobsters in a suitcase to smuggle home,” reads one post, using an insulting term for the mainlanders.

The trade has led to a crackdown by authorities on both sides of the border in the past year. Shenzhen customs officials upgraded their checkpoints in July so that a green light flashes whenever someone is detected crossing the border for the third time on the same day. A man with 66 iPhones strapped to his body was apprehended in this way.

Officials have said they may deny permits to Shenzhen residents fined twice for smuggling. As the net tightens, traffickers are being pushed to find new ways to beat the system.

First appeared in The Times, on December 26, 2013