China Moves to Restrict Entry to Hong Kong After Protests

April 12, 2015 Updated: April 13, 2015

China will rein in visits by residents of the southern city of Shenzhen to nearby Hong Kong, but local activist groups remain unconvinced that the move will resolve tensions in their border towns.

Beijing has decided to tweak an existing travel policy for residents of Shenzhen, Southern China, because “alongside the unceasing growth of mainland residents traveling to Hong Kong and growing pressure on mainland and Hong Kong immigration ports, there’s growing contradiction between visitor numbers to Hong Kong and Hong Kong tourism’s capability,” according to state mouthpiece Xinhua.

Under the new ruling, Shenzhen permanent residents have to apply for an entry permit to Hong Kong a week before visiting. Those holding on to visas under the current scheme—year-long, unlimited entry permits—will still be allowed to keep them until they expire.

The news was leaked earlier on WeChat—a Chinese mobile messaging service. WeChat users circulated an internal memo from Shenzhen’s immigration department with information that authorities will restrict its permanent residents to one trip a week to Hong Kong, and will make the ruling official on Monday, according to Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily. This news was later confirmed by local media and politicians.

“The policy might even have a good impact on the local economy because it would allow new, different shops to join the market.”
— Ronald Leung, North District Parallel Imports Concern Group co-founder

Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying said the policy is “directed against professional goods smugglers” and vowed further measures to target such traders based in Hong Kong.

Since the Shenzhen government granted multiple-entry permits in 2009, Shenzhen residents have been making multiple day-trips to the international financial hub’s border towns, buying up products like milk powder and diapers for resale on the mainland, a phenomenon called “parallel trading.” Concerned that mainland traders are disrupting the lives of locals, so-called localist protest groups started aggressive confronting these shoppers in weekly demonstrations in February and March.

While the Chinese regime’s immigration move is expected to slash Shenzhen visitors to Hong Kong by an estimated 4.6 million a year (of the nearly 47 million mainland visitors in 2014, about 15 million were from Shenzhen), the localist protest groups are skeptical of its effectiveness to reduce local tensions.

People who returned from Hong Kong sell milk formula to dealers at Luohu Control Port in Shenzhen, south China's Guangzhou province on April 13, 2013. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Shenzhen authorities’ announcement may cause “more people to stream into Hong Kong as parallel traders before their visas expire,” said Ronald Leung, the co-founder of the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group, in a telephone interview.

The trading phenomenon also won’t end when the new policy comes into effect because “the parallel trading rings will hire either Hongkongers or more mainlanders to do the job,” Leung said.

According to Hong Kong customs department figures, of the 5,000 people arrested for smuggling milk powder between March 2014 to Feb. 2015, about 1,750 were Hong Kong residents.

While there are concerns that the move will hurt Hong Kong’s economy—retail sales fell 2 percent in the first two months of the year according to Hong Kong government statistics, and a steeper drop is being predicted for upcoming months—Leung feels that it’s only shops that cater to traders will be forced to shut down.

This could actually be good for Hongkongers, he said. “It might even have a good impact on the local economy because it would allow new, different shops to join the market.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Updated on April 13.