The influx of parallel traders who buy their stock tax-free in Hong Kong to resell it in mainland China at a profit is causing growing unrest. Residents of Sheung Shui, a town close to China's border, say the increase in parallel importers has pushed up retail prices and causes a general nuisance. Importers argue that their trade benefits the Hong Kong economy.
MTR's new weight limit aimed at mainland traders
Traffic in parallel goods across the border faces a roadblock, in the form of a 32kg limit on how much can be carried onto Hong Kong's MTR
Parallel-goods traders were dealt another blow yesterday when the MTR Corporation announced a new baggage weight limit, which could cut by as much as two-thirds the amount of cargo they can take on trains.
The 32kg limit on passengers' luggage will come into force on Tuesday, with a focus on four busy stations near the border with Shenzhen - Sheung Shui, Fanling, Lo Wu and Lok Ma Chau.
All passengers going through the wide gates at those stations must have their bags weighed, and would be refused passage if their luggage exceeded the limit, the railway company said yesterday. Current MTR rules only restrict each person to one piece of luggage with total dimensions of no more than 170 cm.
The government has cracked down on these cross-border traders following protests by hundreds of residents in Sheung Shui last month. They are angry about traders clogging railway stations and pushing prices up.
Parallel traders buy legitimate goods in Hong Kong to smuggle over the border for sale, thereby evading import duties.
Francis Li Shing-kee, The MTR Corporation's chief of operations, said there would be a three-month trial period for the new policy.
Smaller scales will be placed at all East Rail line terminals. MTR staff could ask a passenger to weigh his or her baggage if they suspected it exceeded the limit, and more staff would be hired to implement the new rules, Li said.
If a passenger refused to co-operate, workers could issue a warning, or prosecute the person later under the railway's by-laws, he added.
Currently a parallel exporter can carry 12 packs of boxed drinks. But with the weight limit, they can only carry four. Similarly, while 64 cans of formula milk - a product much sought after on the mainland - can fit into a 170 sq cm bag, this will be reduced to 35 from next week.
This means that traders, some of whom receive HK$100 per trip from syndicates, will find transporting goods more difficult, as they will have to do one or two more return trips each day.
Li said the weighing process would take only a few seconds, and would not affect overall passenger flow.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong customs officials said parallel traders were using private vehicles to smuggle high-value goods across the border, in response to enhanced security by Hong Kong and Shenzhen officers at the Lo Wu checkpoint since September.
"They are also shifting to other land control points, such as at Lok Ma Chau and Man Kam To, to avoid detection," said Chief Superintendent Ben Leung Lun-cheung, head of the customs department's land boundary command.
Since September 17, officers had intercepted five mainland-bound vehicles - three trucks and two cars - at the two checkpoints, Leung said. They seized HK$1.7 million worth of goods, including smartphones and computer parts. The five Hong Kong drivers were arrested.
Up to Thursday, a total of 123 parallel traders had been arrested by mainland authorities since Hong Kong customs officials started passing on information about suspects and stepping up surveillance at Lo Wu.
Leung said half of those detained were Hongkongers, and that 1.3 million yuan (HK$1.59 million) worth of goods, including gold bars, electronic products and milk powder, were seized by mainland authorities.
He said most of the suspects were fined by mainland officials, while some were required to bring the goods back to Hong Kong.