Hong Kong's 'Parallel Trader' Protests Come Amid Wider Tensions With Mainland China

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china-hk-anti-parallel-protests-march-2015.jpg Hong Kong police arrest a demonstrator during anti-parallel protests in Hong Kong, March 8, 2015.

The Chinese government is now moving to crack down on low-level "smuggling" between Hong Kong and mainland China following angry demonstrations in several Hong Kong shopping districts over the weekend, but the latest cross-border standoff is increasingly being linked to broader political tensions.

More than 100 Hong Kong protesters on Sunday gathered in the town of Tuen Mun, not far from the internal border with mainland China, in a show of public anger over the practice of "parallel trading" in which traders re-sell goods acquired in the city at a mark-up across the border.

Protesters chanting "clamp down on parallel trading" stormed a shopping mall, kicking the luggage of anyone who looked as if they might be carrying goods in bulk, and prompting business owners to shut down early, local media reported.

During the protests in Tuen Mun and Sheung Shui, protesters were seen kicking the bags and belongings of passersby and surrounding and insulting people seen dragging or pushing luggage, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Four people were arrested during scuffles with police in Tuen Mun, it said.

Hong Kong officials and politicians have condemned the protests, saying they will harm the city's international image as a safe and courteous place of business.

But protest organizer Leung Kam-shing, who heads the Sheung Shui Parallel Traders' Concern Group, warned of further violence if the government doesn't abolish multiple-entry permits used by the traders to cross the border several times a day.

"The industry and commerce minister in China can see how this is affecting Hong Kong, and yet our own officials ... just blame us, with no pledge to end the multiple-entry visa," Leung told RFA on Monday.

Cross-border tensions

The protests have underscored long-running tensions between Hong Kong residents and their "compatriots" from the mainland, and come after a string of street confrontations and online flame-wars involving mainlanders in the former British colony.

But many now fear that even minor cross-border tensions will be politicized by Beijing.

League of Social Democrats chairman Andrew To, who also heads the Wong Tai Sin District Council, said the protests are harmful to Hong Kong's democratic tradition of peaceful dispute settlement.

"If you are unhappy about the multiple-entry permits system ... then you deal with that, you don't go targeting tourists or other people," To said.

"People will start to think that you're trying to do more than just protect your own rights," he said.

To said the protests would also harm the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which is calling for universal suffrage and public nominations in 2017 elections, rather than a system in which candidates are vetted by Beijing.

"The Chinese government is telling people that people in Hong Kong want independence, and that we hate mainlanders," To said.

"So I think this will have a very bad impact on our movement."

Disorder in the market

In Beijing, industry and commerce minister Zhang Mao on Monday blamed the parallel traders who make several trips daily across the border carrying goods on luggage carts and trollies for re-sale at a profit on the Chinese side.

"The bulk buying these smugglers do makes life for Hong Kong residents inconvenient, narrows the profits for legally-operating importers, and creates disorder in the mainland market," Zhang told reporters on the sidelines of the annual parliamentary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.

"Led by the national anti-smuggling office, [my ministry] and other departments are cracking down, with severe punishment being handed down for people caught doing this," Zhang warned.

"A number of local governments are also moving to step up supervision," he said.

Parallel trading first drew public ire in Hong Kong in the wake of the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal of 2008 that left at least four mainland Chinese infants dead and thousands more suffering from kidney stones, when traders bought up supplies of milk powder in Hong Kong to sell to worried parents.

Under the terms of its 1997 handover to Chinese rule, Hong Kong has maintained its own food and public safety standards, as well as an independent immigration and customs border with the mainland.

The small amounts typically carried by the traders on each cross-border trip enables them to evade customs duties normally charged to importers and then pool goods for sale on the other side.

Thousands detained

Chinese customs officials have detained around 33,000 individuals in connection with parallel trading in the border city of Shenzhen in the past four years, official media reported.

The latest tensions have further highlighted divisions between the mainland and Hong Kong, whose population is made up largely of refugees from Communist Party rule, many of whom do not even describe themselves as Chinese.

In 2012, comments by Beijing University professor Kong Qingdong, who referred to Hong Kong residents as "dogs," sparked angry protests outside Beijing's liaison office in the territory, prompting Kong to try to clarify his comments in a later essay.

And in May 2014, dozens of protesters faced off angrily in a busy shopping district of Hong Kong as a bitter online row over mainland parents allowing their toddler to urinate in public spilled onto the streets.

But a series of occasional spats over manners and social conditioning now seem to have widened to include the debate over Hong Kong's political life.

Since the 79-day Occupy Central civil disobedience movement for full democracy last year, Chinese officials have expressed concern over the lack of "patriotism" among Hong Kong's young people, renewing calls for Communist Party-approved citizenship study in the city's schools, which was rejected following mass protests in 2012.

NPC president Zhang Dejiang called last week for more "patriotic" education in Hong Kong following the "illegal acts" of the Occupy movement, which Beijing has linked to incitement by "hostile foreign forces."

Linking the pro-democracy movement to cross-border tensions, Zhang said protesters against traders and visitors from the mainland could also harbor "ulterior motives," Reuters reported on Tuesday.

Visit canceled

Meanwhile, Li Fei, the top Chinese official in charge of political reform in Hong Kong, has called off a visit to the territory following a pledge by 27 pan-democratic legislators not to back a electoral framework laid down on Aug. 31 by the NPC standing committee.

Visits from other mainland officials also seem unlikely in the near future, RTHK quoted government sources as saying on Tuesday.

The Occupy movement was sparked by an Aug. 31 ruling that while all five million of Hong Kong's voters will be allowed to cast a ballot in the 2017 race for chief executive, they will only be able to choose between two or three candidates pre-selected by Beijing.

Occupy protesters and pan-democratic politicians, who won 54 percent of the popular vote in the last legislative elections, have dismissed the proposed reform package as "fake universal suffrage."

Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the preservation of traditional freedoms of speech and association under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China.

But many Occupy protesters have said they aren't just fighting for public nominations, but against the steady erosion of the city's core values and freedoms, citing a slew of violent attacks on outspoken Hong Kong journalists in recent years.

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


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