Fights broke out in Sheung Shui yesterday during an angry protest against cross-border parallel traders.
The protest, initiated via Facebook last week, started at 2pm, with about 50 residents in the border town gathering near an exit of Sheung Shui MTR station.
"Reclaim Sheung Shui! Protect our homes!" they chanted, echoing slogans written on the placards they were waving. They said the numbers of parallel traders buying goods in the neighbourhood and travelling through the station had been creating a nuisance for years. Parallel traders buy goods in one market to smuggle into another, where they sell them without authorisation.
The protests also drew about 300 onlookers - including some parallel traders - who stood around the station and on a footbridge.
It did not take long for clashes to break out after two young protesters held up a sign reading: "Chinese people eat s***!", together with a modified colonial-era Hong Kong flag.
While fellow protesters asked the two to put the sign away, some middle-aged men, offended by the slogan, ran at them aggressively, denouncing the pair as "Japanese". Police officers intervened to stop the scuffle.
The duo and one of the men who attacked them - believed to be a parallel trader - were taken to a police station but were later released. More scuffles took place around the MTR station, with witnesses saying a trader slapped protesters.
The MTR Corporation, which was prepared for the protest, erected a sign at the station exit requiring passengers to carry no more than one item of luggage. It put up metal barriers to prevent people from congregating near the exit, but was later forced to close it as clashes heated up.
Only a few traders attempted to carry large amounts of goods into the station, but they fled, dumping hundreds of yoghurt drinks as protesters cornered them.
A 21-year-old protester, who was sporting a sling, said his arm had been fractured last week by a parallel trader's trolley. "I have to rest for at least six weeks," said the man, who is a courier.
Others were upset about the traders obstructing roads and what they see as the replacement of local shops by pharmacies and jewellery stores which cater to the tourists. The protest will continue today at the station.
Parallel traders are most active in Sheung Shui as it is only one station from Lo Wu, on the border. They take products, including milk powder, mobile phones and cosmetics, over the border to sell on the mainland, evading tax in the process.
The protests come amid rising anger at the influx of mainland tourists and with many in Hong Kong worried about further inflation of goods and property prices. This month, public pressure forced the postponement of a plan to give 4.1 million non-permanent residents of Shenzhen easier access to Hong Kong by way of multi-entry permits.
Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok said a joint operation with mainland authorities started a week ago at the Lo Wu border crossing and Sheung Shui railway station.
He said the number of illicit cigarettes seized had already fallen by 20 per cent and the number of travellers caught failing to declare goods by 10 per cent. The operation would last for the rest of the year, he added.
While there have been suggestions the government should restrict the number of trips allowed to multi-entry permit holders, Lai said the additional work required would lengthen the border clearing process. Such restrictions would also not stop parallel traders from Hong Kong.