Hong Kong, city of trade, must not crack down on infant formula traders

South China Morning Post (2013.02.07)


Hong Kong became a great city after millions of mainland refugees came here to trade. Entrepreneurship brought goods to billions of people. First, goods made here and, later, goods made in mainland China; Hong Kong’s tradition as a centre of exchange made the world a better place.

The tradition continues, as can be seen in the volume of trade through our airports, ports and cross-border trucking industry. We count the benefits in dollar trade volumes and jobs created. Less often tallied are benefits to the global population who get the goods they want at prices they can afford, thanks to our link in the trade chain.

With no natural resources of our own, everything Hong Kong has comes from elsewhere: food and water from the mainland; wheat from Canada; soya beans from Brazil and baby milk powder from the Netherlands and New Zealand, among other sources.

The owner-producers of these products send them to Hong Kong on the basis of our willingness to pay for them. And some people buy the goods to resell them – at a profit.

In the case of infant formula, people have forgotten every part of this virtuous chain. They waylay honourable traders making an honest living.

Our government is creating a bureaucracy and ramping up spending to criminalise the simple act of trading that made this city great. Bernard Lee Kwan-kit, vice-chairman of the Association of Customs and Excise Service Officers, said extra manpower, space and facilities such as X-ray machines would be needed to enforce proposed restrictions on buying infant formula. What next? Full body searches?

The presence of parallel traders in Hong Kong has drawn complaints of overcrowding, including at MTR stations and on trains. But there are solutions. Innovative thinking suggests the MTR could impose a small charge for extra luggage, set up dedicated repacking zones (with their own surcharge) and dedicated lanes in stations and sections of trains for those carrying luggage for whatever reason. Those using the service would appreciate being able to move themselves and their goods from point to point, free of hassle, and other customers could travel easy, with the encumbered passengers channelled elsewhere.

The shortage of infant formula seems to be a problem of preference. Producers are encouraging pharmacies to take less popular brands that are languishing on store shelves. It seems parents are infuriated at being unable to get their preferred brands as readily as they like. Ridiculous hysteria has even led to a petition to the US government to intervene.

The people harassing these honest traders didn’t make the milk powder, didn’t bring it here and have no natural right to it. Given Hong Kong’s heritage as a city built by poor immigrants from China working hard as traders, the antipathy for these people is a betrayal of who we are.

Our government should not be complicit with these self-appointed victims and agitators, but should instead enforce the laws of the land and promote the economic principles that illuminated the working spirit of Hongkongers past, and will hopefully not be extinguished in the future.


Andrew Work is director and co-founder of The Lion Rock Institute

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