Hong Kong must manage mainland visitor flood before a bust-up occurs

Michael Chugani says we must find more sensible ways to cope with the flood of mainland visitors before a bust-up does us real harm

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 2:57am

Another fire has been put out. We have to pay a heavy price every time we do that. This time, the price was particularly high. We had to become the only society worldwide that restricts outbound travellers to two tins of baby milk powder. It's almost comical. We're taking about milk powder, for goodness' sake, not gold bars or cash-stuffed suitcases.

This self-inflicted stab into our free market principle was not the only price we paid. Train passengers now face even tighter restrictions on the size and weight of what they take on board. We had to pacify local mothers furious with parallel goods traders for draining our supply of baby milk powder to sell on the mainland for huge profits.

Before this, we had to put out the fire of rich mainlanders paying big bucks to buy property here, making homes unaffordable for locals. Then, too, we had to interfere with the free market with tough measures to cool property prices.

And don't forget the fury of local mothers who had to compete for hospital beds with mainland pregnant women giving birth here so their babies could qualify for Hong Kong residency. Hundreds of thousands of such babies were born before Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying blocked mainland women from giving birth here.

But thousands of Hong Kong-born mainland children have now reached school age and are competing with local kids for scarce places at border town schools. Local parents demand priority for their children. Each of the fires we have had further inflamed anti-mainland sentiments.

I have long banged my head against the wall warning that we need to move beyond political sensitivities and admit we have a ticking time bomb. We've had tensions with mainlanders over hospital beds, high property prices, parallel goods traders, baby milk powder, inflation and school places. What next? Crowded roads, MTR seats, or more shopping areas being "colonised" by them? It doesn't sound all that far-fetched if we remember the flare-ups over such minor things as mainlanders eating in MTR trains and restaurants changing their menus to simplified Chinese.

Policymakers have so far succumbed to political correctness by pretending that sticking band-aids on every flare-up will defuse the bomb. But it just delays the explosion. If estimates are correct, mainland visitors to Hong Kong will rise from the current 35 million to 50 million a year by 2015, or about four million a month. Is there a band-aid big enough to hide the tensions this will most likely spark?

Everything has a breaking point. Do we kid ourselves that we'll never reach that point, or dare we ask the tough questions that need to be asked? How many more mainland tourists can we handle or actually need? Should we slow the flow until we can handle more? Who benefits from the influx aside from retailers? Is it worth trading our way of life - and quality of life - to boost tourist dollars? Does integration simply mean being swamped by mainland visitors? Surely, these are sensible, rather than xenophobic, questions?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com