By Maggy Lee, Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong

Cross-border activities in Shenzhen. Photo taken by Maggy Lee
In recent months, thousands of Hong Kong ordinary citizens and non citizens cross the Hong Kong-mainland Chinese border on a daily basis smuggling large quantities of everyday items which have become highly sought after in China because of public concerns over product safety. Some are buying tax-free cigarettes, food products or other daily necessities for themselves, while others are parallel traders reselling them in China for a profit. The result has been mass protests against the shortage of goods and the public nuisance created by parallel traders especially in towns along the border. At the centre of this current panic is the smuggling of baby milk formula, which has allegedly prompted thousands of local citizens and concerned parents to sign a petition asking U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene. So what’s going on?

Since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under the binding principle of 'one country, two systems', the border separating Hong Kong and mainland China remains highly controlled through distinct, multi-tiered immigration processes. For Hong Kong citizens, unlimited travel across the border is relatively straightforward with a 'Home Return Permit'. Mainland Chinese citizens, however, must obtain a ‘Two Way Travel Permit’ or a permit under the ‘Individual Visitor Scheme’ to visit Hong Kong to help regenerate Hong Kong’s local economy. Since the introduction and extension of the Individual Visitor Scheme nine years ago, over 91 million visitors from the mainland have travelled to Hong Kong. This gradual liberalisation of internal border control has had paradoxical effects, however. In particular, the increasing flow of citizens across the border (in both directions) has led to the heightened visibility of border trading – a longstanding grey market - and in the process, heightened tensions of social political identities and exclusionary sentiments.

Cross-border activities in Shenzhen. Photo taken by Maggy Lee.
Our pilot project examines the emergence of this border paradox, particularly the process by which border trading is facilitating the conditions for economic integration and at the same time, heightening social exclusion. In doing so, we look at the varied meanings and everyday experiences of cross-border mobility and border control through a case study of the criminalisation and policing of cross-border parallel trading of infant milk formula in Hong Kong. Indeed, there are growing social tensions between parallel traders and local communities along the internal border, representation of the illicit market of parallel trading as a crime problem, and the current deployment of state interventions and border policing (from intensive checks at border control points, police arrests at railway stations and raids, to denial of entry of non-citizens on a ‘parallel trader watch list’). Through a case study of internal border policing under China's policy of ‘one country, two systems’, our research project aims to provide critical insights into the migratory ‘fault lines’ in a stratified global order, the role of the police and immigration authorities in the regulation and enforcement of mobility and borders, and the paradoxical effects of integration policies on national and local identities.

See Karen Joe Laidler and Maggy Lee (forthcoming), ‘Border Trading and Policing of Everyday Life in Hong Kong’ in Sharon Pickering (ed.), The Routledge Handbook on Migration and Crime, London: Routledge.