Shenzhen visitor cutbacks a chance for Hong Kong to restore local communities

Paul Yip says we should not rely so much on short-term gains from mainland tourists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 4:09pm

The recent announcement of the restrictions on Shenzhen permanent residents, limiting them to one visit a week to Hong Kong, should be welcomed by all sectors. It can reduce the number of parallel-goods traders and also minimise the disruption to residents, especially in the New Territories. It should be viewed as an opportunity to ease the present congestion and allow more time and space for the government to improve people's livelihoods.

However, the response from representatives of the retail sector has been disappointing and shortsighted, simply focusing on their own immediate profit without considering others and the overall benefits. One lawmaker suggested that up to 30 per cent of shops may be forced to shut down, saying it could well lead to job losses.

Perhaps, instead, it is a chance for the community to take back the shops that were forced out due to increased rents. Could it be a golden opportunity to restore our community, leading to healthier development?

We don't need so many high-end jewellery shops and drug stores in our local community anyway. Should we work on service quality and diversity rather than relying on making quick money by providing substandard services to mainland visitors? In the past few years, many local communities have been disrupted by the disproportional increase of these shops serving parallel traders and the disappearance of others.

There are some suggestions that the new rules might leave those affected on the mainland harbouring negative feelings.

However, Hong Kong and Shenzhen governments have to make it clear that the exercise will benefit both sides. For those in Shenzhen, the reduction of parallel traders will reduce the loss of goods taxes. With fewer people, the shopping experience of genuine visitors to Hong Kong will be enhanced.

For the Hong Kong side, a diversification of products and cheaper rents can improve the sustainability of overall development. The overemphasis on retail services for parallel goods trading and the unbalanced development of our economy are unhealthy and have become a source of conflict and disharmony in the community,

I am disappointed by the media which has not shown a more thoughtful and in-depth analysis of the effects but has instead simply followed "the doomsday scenario" as suggested by retail sector representatives. Are we paying the same attention to the shops that were squeezed out? Have their voices been heard?

The capacity to handle mainland tourists has been the subject of heated debate in Taiwan and elsewhere. Some local shops in Hualien, , a beautiful town on the east coast of Taiwan, have been forced out and replaced by chain stores which are owned by mainland businessmen. The local economy has not benefited much from these changes. Furthermore, the closure of some affordable student accommodation to make room for more visitors has caused considerable distress in the community. However, in Taiwan, the local media has shown more empathy towards the plight of local residents. Certainly, it is good to have more business but it should not be achieved without considering the overall social cost.

Similarly, residents in Hong Kong's North District have been complaining about the high cost of goods as a result of the occupation of shops for parallel traders. With the latest rule change, it is a good time to revisit the situation and address their concerns by aiming for something more sustainable and community friendly.

We need to find again our strength and confidence to develop our economy without relying so much on tourism from mainland China. Of course, we welcome visitors from the mainland and other places, but they are not and should not be our lifeline. The short-term loss of a few million dollars from the cut in the number of Shenzhen residents' visits will not hurt Hong Kong and I hope the media can put things into perspective.

The fear of job losses and economic pain needs to be better understood, and evidence produced. The "noise" that has so far been generated is very much a reflection of people being focused on themselves and a short-term gain mindset among stakeholders. These sort of reactions hurt the community much more than losing visitors. The government should not ignore its responsibility to improve our capacity to accommodate tourists.

There needs to be a clampdown on unlawful operations by some mainland visitor tour companies, and those in charge should face stiff penalties to protect the Hong Kong brand.

It is a time to inspire hope rather than fear in the community to achieve more sustainable growth for everyone. The government, retailers and the community should seize this opportunity to restore harmony and enhance overall well-being in the community.

Paul Yip is professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong