Launched in February, an emergency two-can limit on exports of baby milk formula was made permanent Hong Kong law last Friday. The South China Morning Post reported that by Saturday last week, customs officials in Hong Kong arrested 26 Hong Kong residents and 19 Mainland Chinese for attempting to smuggle baby milk powder across the border into Mainland China. Anyone convicted of breaking the milk powder export limit faces a penalty of up to US$64,500 and no more than two years in prison.
According to an interview with Legislative Council official Tien Michael, the new law was designed to attack parallel trading activities and to prevent the prices of Hong Kong milk powder from rising. Parallel trading occurs when traders buy goods tax-free in Hong Kong, then sell them into the Mainland at a markup.
Given the increasing concerns about domestic food safety, many Mainland Chinese often choose to buy goods imported from Hong Kong, where safety standards are more rigorous. The high demand of Hong Kong produced goods lead to increasing parallel trading, which ultimately raises prices and harms the welfare of Hong Kong consumers and taxpayers.
Ever since the news about the new law was released, it has been widely discussed by Web users on Sina Weibo, a Chinese micro-blogging platform. Some have inveighed against the law and reprimanded Hong Kong government. For example, Pan Shiyi (@潘石屹), Chairman of SOHO, China’s largest real estate developer, wrote: “When Mainland children are suffering from hunger, Hong Kong should have felt obliged to send milk formula to the Mainland. It is ridiculous to issue such regulations and to stipulate a two-year sentence for those arrested. I suggest the Legislative Council reconsider this immoral law.”
Wang Shuo (@王烁),the editor of caixin.com, expressed similar anger, arguing that such regulation will not only harm China, but also jeopardize Hong Kong: “ It is heartless and stupid for Hong Kong’s government to threaten milk formula consumers by issuing the regulation. The influx of Mainland consumers will indeed put short-term pressure on Hong Kong’s milk power supply, but it will soon be soothed as international milk powder firms start to reassess the market demands. Hong Kong’s vitality is based on the fact that it bridges China and the world, but policy makers are losing their advantages and abandoning Hong Kong’s traditions and by setting barriers to milk powder exports.”
Some expressed their distaste for the law in a more entertaining way. For example, @六间房刘磊, Chief Editor of 6.cn, a video sharing website, posted an absurd joke:
Hong Kong customs officer: ‘Please stop, what is this large can of white powder?!’
‘I’m sorry sir, this is heroin.’
Customs officer: ‘Okay, you can go. I thought it was milk formula.’
However, most Web users focused on the problems associated with domestic food safety.
Liu Chun (@刘春) ,Vice President of Web portal sohu.com, wrote: “Hong Kong’s actions in limiting the exports of milk powder astonished the whole nation. But how come China, a great nation, cannot solve such a minor problem? It should not be hard to improve the quality of domestic baby milk formula if we raise the standards and the prices of domestic goods … and provide strict product inspection through the process of production. In doing so, both producers and consumers will be benefitted. Isn’t ‘pooling resource to address major problems’ the superiority of our socialism system?”
Well-known online wit “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) rebuked the Chinese government for its inability to ensure domestic food safety: “Many people blame the Hong Kong government for the cruel rule associated with curbing on milk formula exports. Nevertheless, people should not forget that there is nothing wrong with the Hong Kong government protecting their taxpayers’ interests. …. What you really should blame is the government that collects your taxes, first for failing to ensure the safety of milk powder; second, for not increasing the imports [of milk powder]; and third, for not putting any pressure on the Hong Kong government but [instead] acquiescing.”
When China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, ascended to power last November, a post by Liu Shengjun (@刘胜军改革) that listed his ten major wishes for the next ten years was shared more than 100,000 times. Liu’s first wish: “[People] won’t have to buy reliable infant milk powder abroad.” After several months, the new Hong Kong law has brought the topic of food safety to the table again. How can China’s government make sure its peoples’ quality of life is synonymous with the country’s economic growth? Sometimes, it starts with something as small as the contents of a baby’s bottle.