HONG KONG -- It is a peaceful afternoon in the tiny fishing village of Kau Lau Wan, one of the many sleepy coastal towns that dot the islands of Hong Kong, when suddenly six identical speedboats roar around the headland in formation, pulling up at the pier by jamming their engines into reverse.
As they arrive, men start moving television sets on trolleys out of tiny cottages along the wharf and swiftly load them onto the boats.
In less than three minutes, the operation is over, and the sleek, powerful boats are speeding their way northward to China. Though what has transpired so far is legal here, it is the first step in a brazen multimillion-dollar smuggling and corruption racket between Hong Kong and China, and officials also believe it extends all the way to the Soviet Union.
These high-speed pirates race around Hong Kong waters impervious to the possibility of arrest, loading their cargo of assorted contraband -- including air conditioners, videocassette recorders, cigarettes and stolen Mercedes-Benzes -- and then screeching up the south China coast, where economic prosperity and exorbitant import duties have combined to create a huge appetite for black-market goods.
"They charge around with no radar, carrying no lights," said marine police Cmdr. Barry Deegan. "They're like lethal weapons."
Although activity continues throughout the day, it heightens by night, especially in the darkened island-dotted waters around Hong Kong's northeastern flank, near the Chinese border.
Hundreds of custom-built speedboats, reinforced with steel plates and bulletproof glass, skim the water like jets, charging up and around the coastline at more than 80 mph. Most of the boats' fittings are stripped off to keep them as light and fast as possible. Special compartments are built into their bodies to store contraband. They carry three or four outboard engines, packing a total of up to 1,200 horsepower.
The drivers maneuver the multiple engines and at the same time hold portable phones with which they track police movements and coordinate operations. "They're very sharp, very sleek, like something out of 'Miami Vice,' " said K. S. Tong, Hong Kong's deputy customs and excise commissioner.
Profits are so high that only one or two smuggling runs can net the approximately $128,000 needed for the speedboats that are the backbone of the operation. One large boat can easily carry 300 video recorders. Profits from a single two-hour trip carrying such a cargo could top $75,000. "This is big, big money," said Deegan.
One of the key problems in shutting down the smuggling operations is that much of the activity within Hong Kong is legal. Building the supercharged, steel-clad monsters is legal. Most of the smuggled goods are legally purchased in Hong Kong, and no export licenses are required to take them out of the British territory, a free port.
"We see smugglers loading 200 VCRs into a speedboat with four outboard engines," said police Superintendent Gregory Lam. "We know what they are doing and where they are going, but it's not a crime until they get into China."
Recently, however, the smugglers have zeroed in on luxury cars, of which there are many in Hong Kong, stealing some 350 Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Toyotas off the streets of the colony during the past three months alone. The smuggling is difficult to stop because the cars are transported to China the same day they are stolen, and Hong Kong's patrol boats are no match for the smugglers' speedboats.
The authorities' inability to curb the trade, coupled with the dramatic increase in car theft in the colony, has prompted some legislators to suggest giving police the power to fire on smugglers. Mainland Chinese border patrols already have the power to shoot smugglers.
But the issue is controversial here. Last month, 20 heavily armed Hong Kong police in a helicopter machine-gunned a speedboat carrying a stolen Mercedes. The speedboat got away and the officers are now under investigation.
"High-speed pursuit and interception at sea are just not viable tactics," said Deegan. "We can't start having gun battles at sea."
Many officials believe the problem lies over the border in China. "Chinese officials, police and security bureau members are the ones getting these cars," said one police official who asked not to be identified. "It's the other side that needs to take action. There's very little cooperation from them."
Former marine police commander John MacDonald said police were certain of official Chinese involvement in the smuggling trade. "We know of goods going from Hong Kong to Shanghai, then on through China and across the border into Russia. Now that kind of movement takes a lot of organization," he said.
Earlier this year, Hong Kong police conducting a "sting" operation on a luxury-car smuggling ring at sea found themselves confronted with armed, uniformed Chinese officials instead. The Chinese insisted they were also looking for smugglers, but the incident was viewed in the colony as proof that officials from southern China were deeply involved in the smuggling trade.
Some of the cars stolen in Hong Kong also find their way to Thailand and other parts of Asia.
Analysts and diplomats say the smuggling trade has grown dramatically in the last few years as a result of China's opening to the West. People in southern China have more money than ever to spend on luxury consumer goods. "They watch Hong Kong television over the border every night," said one Western diplomat. "They know what's available. There's a real demand there that needs satisfying."
Police also said that electronic goods such as televisions and VCRs fetch huge prices on the black market in the Soviet Union.
Hong Kong's colonial government has enacted some legislation, effective primarily against cigarette smuggling, and a high-level working committee is examining new laws that could be introduced to combat the growing contraband problem.
But in the meantime, the high-speed pirates are winning the nightly cat-and-mouse game against police in the waters around Hong Kong.
The smugglers are unafraid and provocative, sometimes ramming police craft. Marine police have been confronted with as many as 15 speedboats traveling in a "V" formation. When approached, the boats split up and head in different directions, sometimes straight toward the police vessels.
"Frustration?" asked Superintendent Jeff Richards, officer in charge of Hong Kong's nightly chase scene. "That's an understatement."