Parallel trading

Over-the-top crackdown on parallel traders is beneath Hong Kong

Mike Rowse says problems could be solved without targeting mainlanders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 3:06pm

Am I the only person in Hong Kong who feels uncomfortable about the recent crackdown on parallel-goods traders? What is it about their activities that we as a community apparently find so offensive?

As I understand it, they are buying goods in Hong Kong, transporting them to another place, and selling them for a profit. This is called "trading" and it is how our city has made a living for itself for decades. Indeed, we are famous around the world for our trading expertise.

Note, they are buying the goods, not stealing them. And they are not even getting a healthy wholesale discount, just paying the over-the-counter price like you and I.

Now I'll grant you there have been some problems arising at the practical level, for example carrying large quantities of goods on MTR trains to the border and blocking station entrances and the carriages themselves, thus inconveniencing local residents. Surely this can be addressed, first by the MTR Corporation enforcing its regulations about the quantity and size of goods individual passengers can carry. (By the way, when we start this enforcement exercise, can we also extend it to Admiralty and Causeway Bay stations?)

It should be pretty easy to find a small fleet of goods vehicles to run a shuttle service from Sheung Shui and other places to the border crossings.

A long wait at immigration and customs? Make those with large quantities of goods use a separate queue.

Then there is the reported issue of the bulk sales pushing up prices, so local residents are being forced to pay extra for baby milk powder, shampoo and other necessities.

Surely it is not beyond Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung to sort this one out if it is in fact true. Two supermarket chains control over 80 per cent of the market, so he can just call in their bosses and tell them to fix it. Given the numbers involved, they could hold the meeting in the back of his official car.

What remain are the so-called immigration offences of mainlanders breaching the terms of their two-way permits by undertaking employment. Already, scores of ordinary men and women have been arrested; some have been taken before the courts and jailed. All mainlanders, you will notice; no Hong Kong residents among them.

Really? Have we stooped to this level? Could someone tell me the difference in principle between mobile phones bought in Yuen Long and Gucci handbags bought in Central? But how many times have our diligent law enforcement officers raided the Landmark or Pacific Place and carted off screaming tai-tais?

And, inevitably, the countermeasures have begun. Just as a mainlander acting as a courier may have a slightly questionable status on this side of the border, so his Hong Kong counterpart may be on thin ice on the other side of the Shenzhen River.

Sure enough, Hong Kong resident couriers are now being warned that they could be jailed for the act. Did no one in authority anticipate this? What did we expect the mayor of Shenzhen to do? How many millions is it all costing?

Unless the situation is smoothed out quickly, a great deal of ill will is going to be generated and it will poison the atmosphere in other areas where the two cities need to work together. A brief burst of popularity will have been bought at a price we will all be paying for years to come.

Just when you may have thought things couldn't possibly get any sillier, word reaches us from Beijing that our government has raised the issue with the central government.

The Politburo meeting must have been be a corker. The agenda will have included the Sino-Japanese relationship vis-à-vis the Diaoyu Islands, the situation in Syria, implications for China of the US presidential election - and toothpaste purchases in Hong Kong. Let us hope this last item does not get mixed up in consideration of the next stage of our democratic development.

Someone, somewhere, needs to demonstrate a sense of proportion.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.