Eradicating parallel traders requires effort

Updated: 2015-03-05 07:41

By Albert Lin(HK Edition)

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With shrewd Cantonese people in high places on both sides of the border an amicable solution can surely be negotiated to end the troublesome activities of so-called parallel traders. For too long they have been allowed to upset the lives of housewives and particularly young mothers in our New Territories border towns.

With mainland visitors for so many years a mainstay of our economy and more importantly, the sovereignty of Hong Kong having been returned to China more than 17 years ago, the oft-heard suggestion that these traders should be denied entry isn't viable. Nevertheless it is obvious something must be done, or there could be more serious problems than the recent attack on parallel traders at a mall in Tuen Mun New Town.

The ins and outs of inter-governmental cross-border arrangements are unfamiliar to us, but I would suggest the following idea might be worth looking into:

Traders could be required to produce documents proving their identity and address for examination and verification by Immigration Department inspectors when entering and leaving Hong Kong, and their names and ID numbers electronically recorded.

Once in possession of information on the identities of traders we would be in the position to pass such details on to the public health authorities in Guangdong province. They could then perform checks to ensure all imported baby products, particularly milk powder, met local health standards and were still sealed, untampered with, in their original packaging.

Unfortunately for the traders, this would probably mean all baby products among their Hong Kong purchased goods would need to be held in public health storage until such checks could be completed. Only after these inspections had been satisfactorily completed would the goods be returned to the trader. But if, for instance, samples had to be sent to Guangzhou for testing by laboratories there, this could involve a considerable delay. Therefore the trader, his money tied up in the latest "shipment", could be left fretting for a while. This would be a totally different scenario from the current trader's slap-dash modus operandi. But as he or she chafed over the delay, and the realization that their business now had to comply with mainland regulations, here in Hong Kong, a quick return to normal levels of business could be expected in over-the-counter business in chemist shops and supermarkets in our border towns.

It can be assumed that introducing the above procedures would be welcomed by public health authorities north of the border. This is because the last thing the mainland wants is more unsafe baby products being fed to infants.

Memories of the dreadful 2008 mainland baby powder scandal are no doubt foremost in the minds of these authorities. The current cross-border free-for-all, with rapacious money grabbers interested only in making a quick profit, is the perfect setting for a counterfeit business. All that is needed is for a handful of unscrupulous traders to begin a very small-scale copy-cat version of the 2008 scene on the mainland where life-threatening melamine was added to baby milk powder. The object then was to increase the profits of some of the country's biggest dairy product manufacturers, regardless of known perils to babies and toddlers.

It must be assumed that mainland's food and drug safety watchdog is extremely concerned with the present situation. It would welcome the opportunity to bring it under proper control in case there are further incidents involving babies.

In this regard, it is heartening to note that the Customs and Excise Department has boosted checks on departing travelers and detected 151 attempts at exporting unlicensed powdered formula. This involved 1,479 kilograms of powdered formula during the week of Feb 2-8. The department has been exchanging intelligence and planning dedicated operations with the Shenzhen authorities. During the same period, the two sides cracked down on 34 smuggling cases involving parallel traders, seizing goods to a total value of about HK$300,000, while the Immigration Department refused entry to more than 750 others.

The government has followed up its concerns about the impact of parallel trading activities on daily lives by implementing vigorous enforcement action.

During the same period, the Immigration Department and police mounted six joint enforcement operations named "Windsand" in North District (including Sheung Shui and Lok Ma Chau), and arrested 55 mainland residents who were suspected of contravening their conditions of stay through their involvement in parallel trading activities.

Meanwhile, the police and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) have jointly stepped up actions against obstruction and nuisance in public places by parallel traders and stores, and have issued a total of 20 summonses under the Summary Offences Ordinance (Cap 228). The FEHD has also issued over 150 Fixed Penalty Notices to offenders who littered and caused environmental hygiene problems.

Let's hope all these inter-department parallel-trading eradication actions at our border towns and other areas are more than simply one-off operations and the relevant departments will maintain pressure to make it unprofitable for the traders to continue their illegal activities.

The author is a former journalist and civil servant.

(HK Edition 03/05/2015 page10)