The precious fine white powder has ignited a new round of discord between mainland China and Hong Kong. It’s not really news that baby formula has become an extremely hot commodity in Hong Kong for the past year. The loss of hope to get safe Chinese-brand dairy products in mainland and the cheaper prices of imported baby powders in Hong Kong (lower tariff than mainland) have turned many mainland parents and hawkers to this special administrative region of China.
Faced with flocks of mainland traders who often buy up local supplies, Hong Kong government put into effect an emergency two-can limit on baby formula purchases (two can per person to cross the border) not long before the recent Chinese New Year.
This past Friday, the purchase restriction became permanent. What’s more, violators will now face very tough penalties of up to 2 years in prison and a fine of about $64,500. On the first day in which the new law went effective, 10 people, 8 Hongkongers and 2 mainlanders, were arrested for “smuggling” more than the allowed amount.
Not surprisingly, the new law and its tough penalties have left many Chinese netizens outrageous, some at Hong Kong government, and some at Beijing.
Isn’t Hong Kong the land of free market?
Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading financial centers, characterized by low taxation and free trade. The newly-imposed law on baby powder purchases makes many Chinese netizens wonder where does Hong Kong’s spirit of free market go.
王烁, chief editor of Caixin, commented: “It’s both heartless and stupid for Hong Kong to threat mainlanders who backpack baby powders with imprisonment. The burden on Hong Kong’s baby formula supply is only temporary, and will be resolved once international diary companies re-evaluate the market demand in Hong Kong. The power of Hong Kong lies in its ability to bridge China and the world. Now Hong Kong leaders put a block between mainland and themselves due to baby formula problems. It shows that Hong Kong has lost its reason and conscience.”
Later, he went on to explain his reasoning: “[Mainland’s] demand of imported baby formula could have been a huge business opportunity for Hong Kong. Hong Kong booms exactly because it values free market. But now, Hong Kong is destroying itself.”
And he is not only. 北京厨子, a vocal and popular Weibo celebrity, called Hong Kong’s new law racist: “A government that is elected by its people; and a city that has honored itself the name “free harbor” now throw people in prison for violating a purchase restriction. All I want to say is that to punish illicit trades with such tough penalties is unheard of. All because of a third can of baby formula. It’s good enough to punish illicit trades by ways of trade sanctions. To use criminal penalties is totally racist.”
Why such tough penalties?
This is not the first time when there are discussions of whether the free-market Hong Kong should impose purchase restrictions, especially on mainland which has been supplying the island with fresh water and foods. But what seems to touch the nerves of a lot of netizens this time is the tough penalties.
李开复, former head of Google China, asked: “Can any friend from Hong Kong please explain why Hong Kong, governed by rule of law, imposed such a ridiculous penalty?” 陶景洲, partner at Dechert (law firm), also questioned whether the new law makes sense: “Two cans of baby formula and such tough penalties. That’s probably more severe than actual smuggling. What for?”
Some others, like netizen Pound101 even went further to question whether the new penalty is unconstitutional. 仝宗锦, associate law professor at China University of Political Science and Law, pointed out that the purchase restriction may potentailly violate article 115 in Hong Kong Basic Law which says Hong Kong practices free trade.
No one is more guilty than the Chinese government
Not everyone thinks that Hong Kong is the one (at least not the only one) to blame in the case. 慕容雪村, popular novelist and Weibo celebrity, commented: “To discuss Hong Kong and baby formula, we should go back to where it all begins. In a country that is the second biggest economy in the world, that is said to have risen, that spends billions of public funds on banquets, that uses billions to maintain stability, no one can produce a can of safe baby powder? The tainted milk scandal in 2008 has long past, but what improvement has our diary industry made so far? What have our quality control bodies done? What have our government done? Has any of our people’s delegates showed any care?”
Many netizens shared the same feeling. Like netizen yupedee sighed: “After all, it’s our own government who led food safety to deteriorate to today’s situation. Who else can we blame?”
To netizen 项仙君, Hong Kong’s new law is the start of a divided China: “On one side, it’s sad chaos. On the other, it’s selfish feast….The farthest distance on earth is when the child is in your arms and the baby formula is on the other side [of the divide].”
Can mainlanders actually benefit from the new law?
The answer is, of course, no unless the move can prompt Beijing to implement more effective food safety regulations. But Chinese netizens are never short of sarcasm. How exactly can mainlanders benefit from the purchase restriction? To go to Hong Kong during pregnancy, buy 3 cans of baby formula, get caught on purpose at the customs, refuse to pay the fine, willingly be sent to the prison, give birth to a baby in prison and thus obtain Hong Kong citizenship for the baby, saving accommodation and hospital expenses.