Parallel trading

Hongkongers can take a leaf out of London shop owner's book

Rather than blame mainlanders for our social issues, we could act to make city a better place

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 February, 2013, 5:27am

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is back in the political kitchen after a Lunar New Year family reunion in London where his children are studying.

And waiting for him at the government headquarters in Tamar was the city's latest tourism scandal.

A group of visitors on a package tour had a far less comfortable break than Leung, sleeping in their coach rather than in the hotel rooms they had been promised.

The incident brought doubt to Hong Kong's claim as "Asia's World City" and raised the question whether it was welcoming more mainland visitors than it could handle.

Making the incident the subject of his first public comment after his holiday, Leung warned that it could tarnish the city's reputation if not properly managed.

Privately, the chief executive has been sharing with aides and friends his experiences from the overseas trip.

An incident that struck him was a visit with friends to buy necessities at a London pharmacy.

Noting that a popular brand of infant formula was in stock, his friends decided to buy several cans for their grandchild in Hong Kong.

But the shopkeeper told them they could buy no more than two cans.

He explained that he had a social responsibility to take care of his community and ensure that they had enough of the item for local children - making money was not his only consideration.

Leung was said to have been extremely impressed with the shop owner's attitude and wondered whether the same could happen in Hong Kong.

There have been reports that as milk powder supplies ran short in the city, some shopkeepers held back popular brands of the item for mainland buyers who would pay more for it, setting locals off on a frantic search for the product.

Would shop owners in Hong Kong be, like the one Leung met in London, caring enough and willing to sacrifice their profits to ensure that local needs are met? No one can say for sure.

But the effects of the government's two-can limit on infant formula exports - which is aimed at easing the city's milk powder shortage - are expected to be only temporary, since the fundamental problem of high mainland demand is here to stay.

Hong Kong faces the dilemma of whether to further widen its doors to mainlanders.

This debate has led to calls for a focus on quality - that is, to admit only the wealthier mainland visitors.

But while the suggestion is understandable, it is not feasible. Such a discriminatory policy would certainly have a severely negative impact on the city's reputation.

Perhaps one key point has been missed in the debate: what kind of social norm do we desire for our city?

Are Hongkongers truly the money-hungry barbarians some critics have portrayed them as?

Or do we also have a loving, caring and helpful side, as has been demonstrated in the 2003 fight against the Sars epidemic and on many other occasions in the past?

While the government should indeed tighten controls on parallel-goods trading and seriously review our tourism policies towards mainlanders, Hongkongers can, besides simply complaining about the various issues, also do something - something small yet meaningful - for our society.

Perhaps the actions of the shop owner in London could serve as a reference.