Edited on Feb. 11.
“Out of control.” That’s what a Hong Kong magistrate called the illicit transport of milk powder from the city last year.
The magistrate made those comments last week after issuing a two-week jail sentence to a woman who tried to leave Hong Kong with 44 pounds (20.1 kilograms) of infant formula, or ten times the legal limit, Epoch Times Chinese edition reports.
The numbers back the judge’s bleak assessment—in 2014, customs officers seized about 90 tons (89,000 kilograms) of infant formula in 9,160 cases of smuggling.
More than 9,200 people were arrested, Hong Kong customs chief Clement Cheung revealed at a press conference Tuesday, two-thirds of whom were mainland Chinese—the rest Hongkongers.
Since a milk powder scandal in 2008—China-manufactured formula contained high levels of melamine, a chemical that sickened and killed infants—mainlanders have been flocking to Hong Kong in droves to purchase imported brands. This caused a chronic baby formula shortage in the city.
The Hong Kong government tried to solve the problem in 2013 by making it illegal to leave the territory with more than 4 pounds (1.8 kilograms) of milk powder within a 24-hour period.
But the new law wasn’t much of a deterrence—the courts handles an average of 20 milk powder smuggling cases a day, according to Hong Kong Chinese language broadsheet Ming Pao.
“This state of affairs is a national disgrace,” said Hong Kong judge Ng Wai-fong at a recent court session where 23 smugglers were convicted.
A Parallel Problem
Milk powder, however, is only one commodity that mainlanders are snatching up.
Taking advantage of inexpensive public transportation, lower prices, and the lack of tariffs, Chinese “tourists” have been making multiple day trips to Hong Kong to buy electronics, food and other consumables to resell in China, a phenomenon known as parallel trading.
Because the massive influx of parallel traders is disruptive to residents living in areas near the mainland, some Hongkongers organized a protest march in the Tuen Mun border district on Sunday.
After the march, about 100 protesters went to the shopping malls to confront mainland visitors, according to an Agence France-Presse report.
Police moved in with pepper sprays and batons to break up the activists, who heckled the Chinese “tourists” but weren’t violent. Netizens sharply criticized the police action, and many were reminded of police brutality towards student protesters during the peaceful 79-day long Occupy protests last year.
The Hong Kong government slammed the protesters after the incident, and claims that it has banned 25,000 parallel traders from the territory, local broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong reports.
But if mainland “tourists” continue to buy up goods in Hong Kong in a manner that unsettles Hongkongers, and if the local government continues to mishandle the issue, matters might soon escalate and truly get “out of control.”