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With COVID Travel Bans Lifted, Hong Kong-China ‘Parallel Import Trade’ Returns

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Long before the pandemic shut down Hong Kong’s vibrant retail sector, traders from China crossed the border to purchase everything from cosmetics to cars tax-free for profitable reselling upon returning home, where buyers worried about the quality of locally available products.

The brisk parallel import trade, which included some Hong Kong residents taking goods into China, survived protests by Hong Kong residents who felt it caused shortages of in-demand items such as baby formula and increased prices.

COVID-19 travel restrictions shut down parallel trading more effectively than any law could.

But within days of cross-border travel resuming between China and Hong Kong on Feb. 6, the parallel import trade picked up. Also revived were calls from Hong Kong residents who want the so-called “ants trade” regulated if not shut down.

Near Exit C of the Sheung Shui Station of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), more than 10 people presumed to be parallel importers gathered to distribute goods around 11 a.m. on Feb. 12, the first Sunday after the border reopened. The station is in the Sheung Shui District of the New Territories, an area of Hong Kong that is closest to Shenzhen, a city in China’s Guangdong province. The Sheung Shui Station is one stop from the immigration control point at Lo Wu.

The number of people with either empty or jammed luggage grew as Sunday wore on. VOA Cantonese observed buying and selling of red wine, daily necessities and food.

Hong Kong Police Commissioner Raymond Siu Chak-yee said during a February 11 press briefing that the Immigration Department and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department had stepped up crackdowns on popular parallel trading spots by issuing tickets. He said the operation will continue as part of an effort to nip the problem in the bud.

Leung Kam Sing, a spokesperson for the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group, told VOA Cantonese that the parallel import activities resumed sooner than he expected.

“If you look at where we are standing now, some people are already distributing the goods, and there are already bagged goods,” he said, adding that parallel importing thrives in Hong Kong because people in China worry about the quality of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics there.

According to a report by the local newspaper Ming Pao, more than 10 people gathered during the peak period of the parallel import activities near Sheung Shui MTR Station on Feb. 9 and dispersed when police arrived.

Leung said that the “ants trade” before and after the pandemic created a garbage problem in the Sheung Shui area and increased crowds.

He added that some of the traders hold Hong Kong ID cards and called on the governments of China and Hong Kong to cooperate in combating parallel trading activities. “I have repeatedly reiterated that it is not only Chinese mainland tourists but also Hong Kong people who engage in parallel imports,” Leung said. “We all hope that the government will really face up to this problem, for example, continuing to use the blacklist of (parallel importers) who pass through customs. For example, if some Hong Kong people engage in parallel imports, will the Shenzhen customs take some [actions]? If there are things that are out of reach for Hong Kong customs, will there be some actions by Shenzhen customs?”

According to statistics from the Hong Kong Immigration Department, about 2.43 million people from China entered and exited through border control points from Feb. 6-12, or more than the 2.4 million who visited in the entire pre-pandemic month of December 2019, according to the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Leung, who launched many anti-parallel import activities before the pandemic, said that under the expansive, vaguely worded National Security Law, the group will not begin a campaign. But if parallel trading intensifies, he believes upset local residents might respond spontaneously.

He looked to political groups active in the community for years to “feel the reaction of the residents. I think even if my organization does not carry out (anti-parallel import operations), (the political groups) should all speak out for the residents.”

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