Milk Row Sparks Visa Ban Calls

Mainland Chinese are buying up powdered milk in bulk from Hong Kong, creating a shortage and angering parents.
2013-02-04
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Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong wait to get their packages weighed before returning home, Jan. 29, 2013.
AFP

A recent shortage of infant formula milk in Hong Kong following stockpiling by visitors from neighboring mainland China has sparked calls for immigration curbs on visitors to the former British colony, which has maintained separate borders since its 1997 handover to Beijing.

Shortages of infant formula have sparked angry protests and confrontations between Hong Kong residents and mainland Chinese, many of whom are believed to be wholesalers rather than parents looking for cheaper formula milk to escape skyrocketing prices and quality issues back home.

Some would-be buyers have pressed the city's elderly into service to queue for the formula powder, which sells out almost immediately after a delivery, residents said on Monday.

"In the afternoon, you can see long queues of old ladies outside Mannings and Watson's," said a resident surnamed Ng. "I asked one old lady why they were queuing and she told me she was buying on behalf of someone else, who would pay her for it."

"They are all buying up several cartons as soon as a delivery comes in, and then they give it to a guy who speaks Mandarin," Ng said, in an indication that the buyer could be from mainland China.

"The pharmacies are all selling to mainlanders too, so it all sells out immediately," she said.

Angry families

Now, the territory's legislators are calling for a review of a controversial scheme under which visitors from mainland China may cross the border as individual travelers instead of being confined to a tour group, as was the case before 2003.

The calls follow new rules announced on Friday limiting every person leaving Hong Kong to two cans, or 1.8kg, of milk formula, after widespread buying of infant formula by cross-border visitors sparked chaos outside a Hong Kong railway station last week.

Vigilante groups have been staging noisy protests and haranguing some visitors from mainland China after the spike in sales ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday sparked shortages for Hong Kong families.

More than 4,000 calls were made to a government hotline over the weekend set up to take direct orders from parents unable to find supplies of baby formula.

"I saw people waiting outside the entrance to the supermarket with bags and suitcases, some with vehicles standing by," said a mother surnamed Hsu who was trying to find formula for her infant daughter.

"When they had packed it all up, they put in into the vehicle and left," she said in a recent interview. "They are basically making use of a loophole."

The shortage began last week in towns close to the border with China, like Sheung Shui and Fanling, but later spread as far as Hong Kong's downtown business district and densely populated residential areas.

"It's not as bad here as [up there near the border] where as soon as a delivery arrives it is gone," Hsu said. "Here, where I live, it isn't all gone until the next day."

"It's terrible," she said.

Buying in bulk

Meanwhile, a resident of Shenzhen, on the mainland Chinese side of the border, said the problem was more that the milk powder supplies were being systematically bought up by traders in bulk, rather than being depleted by individual parents.

"If it was just the parents who were coming to buy it, they wouldn't be able to take away very much, but the cross-border traders [were] doing it," said the woman, surnamed Li.

"That has made the shortage in Hong Kong much worse, because there [were] such large volumes going through customs," she said.

"It's a real pain for everyone [in Hong Kong]," said Li, who has relatives in Hong Kong whom she frequently visits, buying her own supply of infant formula at the same time.

A Hong Kong parent surnamed Cheung welcomed the new limits on milk powder going through customs. But he was skeptical about whether they would be effective.

"[This] will make it cost more for the cross-border traders, but prices are so high for everyday items in China now, that they could just decide to accept the higher costs and sell it even more dearly," he said.

Cross-border tensions

The tensions over infant formula milk have highlighted a long-running rift between inhabitants of the former British colony and their mainland Chinese counterparts.

In January 2012, comments made by Beijing University professor Kong Qingdong sparked angry demonstrations by protesters outside Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong.

Kong's comments came after an online flame war between mainlanders and Hong Kong people over the latter's disdain for mainlanders eating on the city's pristine subway system.

Recent surveys have show that only a minority of people in Hong Kong identify themselves as Chinese, suggesting that sentiment about China is at its lowest ebb in more than a decade.

Chinese parents were hard hit by the melamine-tainted milk powder scandal, in which at least six infants died and 300,000 became ill beginning in 2008, but campaign groups say they have been prevented from pursuing compensation through class action lawsuits.

Reported by Ho Shan and Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.