Border mall can head off more Hong Kong baby milk protests

If Carrie Lam lifts restrictions on milk powder sales, she had better make sure mainland visitors can buy supplies at the shopping centre and take them home

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 11:29pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 11:29pm

The long-delayed opening of a border mall targeting mainland shoppers has been underwhelming. The Boxes, first proposed at the height of the milk powder shortage blamed on parallel traders in 2013, was supposed to open nearly two years ago.

The Lok Ma Chau mall is finally ready for a soft opening after being granted a temporary occupation permit. However, it won’t be officially ready for business until early next year.

Despite a free lease offered by the site owners, developers Sun Hung Kai Properties and Henderson Land, and a rent-free offer for tenants for the first month, lawmaker Wong Ting-kwong, the originator of the project, said only 70 per cent of shop spaces were expected to be rented, compared with an earlier forecast of 86 per cent. With the token HK$1 lease for three years up next year, the mall will have to renegotiate again with the developers. But even if they decline to be so generous again, the government should make sure the mall is kept open. Why?

Pop-up shopping mall near Hong Kong-China border misses another deadline

There was not much urgency to open the mall once the past administration of Leung Chun-ying imposed restrictions on how much infant milk formula each traveller could take out of the city.

But in her maiden policy address last month, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said she planned to review the restrictions, which were never meant to be permanent.

The chief executive is under pressure from officials across the border. Thanks to past food and drug scandals on the mainland, officials there had to rely on the availability of Hong Kong drugs and milk powder as a safety valve.

But if Lam lifts the restrictions, she risks opening the floodgates again.

In a rare consensus, politicians from both the Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong have warned in such a case we would be thrown back to the bad old days of 2013 when supplies of milk powder ran low, and angry parents and protesters rallied against mainland tourists.

Lam may not have a timetable, but she can’t hold off mainland pressure indefinitely. That’s why she will need the Lok Ma Chau mall.

If and when she lifts the restrictions, she better make sure visitors from the mainland and parallel traders can only buy baby milk formula at the mall and carry it back home across the area’s border checkpoint. Otherwise, she risks another conflict between the mainland and Hong Kong.