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Hong Kong protests against mainland’s parallel traders an unwelcome trend

A local villager, center, gestures at protesters demonstrating against mainland shoppers at a suburban district of Yuen Long in Hong Kong, Sunday, March 1, 2015. Photo: AP

Tensions between Hong Kong residents and mainland visitors took a nasty turn in February with angry protests, a stark reminder that the relations between some Hong Kong locals and mainland visitors are getting worse and some urgent action is needed.  

The latest episode saw hundreds of Hong Kong residents first gather in early February at a Tuen Mun mall popular with mainland shoppers and criticize them for buying up regular goods, with a similar protest in Sha Tin a week later. Then on March 1, another protest took place in Yuen Long. All three places are in the New Territories, the part of Hong Kong that borders Shenzhen.

On the surface, it is understandable why some Hong Kong people are so aggravated by mainland visitors. The main grievance is that many of these shoppers are not regular tourists or residents.

They are parallel traders who come to Hong Kong to purchase goods like milk powder, diapers and toothpaste which they can sell in mainland China. Furthermore, many of these parallel traders make repeat visits, sometimes even multiple trips daily, as they hold multiple-entry permits. This results in Hong Kong stores running out of goods, making it hard for Hong Kong residents to find and purchase them.

Also, the trend has led to new stores springing up in places like Tuen Mun dedicated to selling these goods to parallel traders. Their good business means mall operators raise rents which then push out small businesses that do not cater to the parallel traders.

The protests came at a time when relations between the mainland and Hong Kong are at a low point, amplified by the Umbrella Movement campaign last year. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s economy has experienced serious problems in recent times, with sky-high property prices and rising inequality. This has made Hong Kong residents feel increasingly insecure about the economy, which contributes to their growing anger at the scarcity of goods and the proliferation of stores focused on mainland parallel traders.

While the frustration of Hong Kong residents might be reasonable, the behavior of some is starting to become inexcusable. The outrage first started a few years ago when mainland visitors were called locusts by some young locals. This term spread into common usage, and some people even took to the streets and confronted mainland tourists using this term. Last year, disgruntled residents also did stunts like marching through streets dressed up as mainland tourists. This year, the verbal harassment of mainland visitors has increased.

This is not to say the complaints about the behavior of some mainland visitors, especially the parallel traders, are ill-founded. There have been cases of these traders littering and blocking pavements and impeding public buses with their suitcases.

Even then, some of the Hong Kong protesters may be stepping over the line with their tactics of confronting mainland visitors.

These people need to realize that anger does not give one the right to attack or verbally abuse others randomly.

For instance, rather than following and shouting at mainland visitors, protestors can target mall owners and businesspeople catering to parallel traders.

The mainland visitor problem has become so serious that Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is expected to speak with the central government in Beijing in March about limiting mainland visitors. It has been suggested that he might ask to limit or scale back the individual travel visa scheme, which covers residents of 49 mainland cities, and reduce the allowed visits for multiple-entry visa holders, who are mostly from neighboring Shenzhen.

In the latter case, such moves might help the situation because the parallel traders are all using multiple-entry visas. But in the former case, it might be detrimental for Hong Kong, as most individual travelers are tourists, who visit places, stay at hotels and shop in Hong Kong, which all contribute significantly to the local economy.

A more effective way could be to place a limit on mainland tour groups, which arrive in big buses and crowd the roads and car parks of popular attractions.

Hong Kong should be encouraging more individual mainland travelers, whether it is young people or families, not limiting them.  

As it is, the number of mainland tourists to Hong Kong dropped over the Spring Festival holiday, the first in almost 20 years. The ongoing incidents may cause more drops in mainland tourist numbers in the near future.

The rising tensions have also made mainlanders angry and as a result, and they have taken to social media to express their anger, branding Hong Kong people as arrogant.

Hong Kong needs to work out a suitable way with mainland authorities to handle the flow of mainland visitors, such as curtailing the parallel traders but not innocent tourists. However, angry Hong Kong residents reconsider their reactions and perhaps take a step back. The increasing boldness of protests against visitors and the backlash from mainland compatriots threaten to create more furor and misunderstanding.
The author is a Beijing-based freelance writer.

(Opinions expressed in the article don't represent those of the

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