Harbour View: Parallel traders are who we are

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Don’t hate parallel traders: they represent the spirit of Hong Kong’s best generation. Accommodate them and local Hong Kongers through innovative thinking.

Madness has broken out in Tuen Muen as frustration boils over. We are reduced to deploying pepper spray in shopping malls because a few poor souls want to do on a small scale what Hong Kong does writ large every day.

They trade, we trade

Hong Kong is a great city built by millions of mainland refugees who came to Hong Kong, many of whom found their future and fortune in the age-old and time-honoured profession of trading. Entrepreneurship and hustle brought goods to billions of people around the world and, later, to China. First with goods made here, and later goods made in China, Hong Kong’s tradition as a trading entrepot made this city great and the world a better place.

The tradition continues and is well respected in the volume of trade through our airports, cargo ports and cross border trucking industry. We count the benefits in TEUs, dollar trade volumes and jobs created. Less often tallied are benefits to the global population that gets the goods they want at prices they can afford through our link in the trade chain. People in Hong Kong, China and the world have lives made richer daily through those who acquire and transport the stuff of life from Point A to Point B around the world.

We trade to survive

With no natural resources of our own, everything Hong Kong has comes from elsewhere. Food and water from China, wheat and beef from Canada, wine from Chile, soya from Brazil and baby milk powder from The Netherlands, New Zealand and other sources abroad.  The owner-producers of these products send these products to Hong Kong willingly on the basis of our willingness to pay for them – for local sale, re-export or whatever we so please. Our end use of these products is not the basis for their sale here – it is our willingness to pay.

Innovative thinking:
– Charge for extra luggage
– Set up dedicated repacking zones (with their own surcharge)
– Dedicated walking lanes in stations and sections of trains for those carrying luggage.
– Formalise the status of ‘industrial’ buildings housing retail operations.
– Enforce laws,  provide outlets for trade.

People who buy from abroad pay because they will sell – at a profit. This profit expectation drives behaviour and makes it possible for the people of Hong Kong to enjoy all these products. We produce almost nothing and trade much more than we could ever consume, ensuring jobs and wealth for our people.

Infant formula crazy

In the case of infant formula, people have gone mad and forgotten every part of this virtuous chain that provides our daily bread. They waylay honourable traders eking out an honest living moving goods from honest retailers to needy customers. In the specific case of milk powder, it has been established there are no starving babies, just parents consumed with angst of the inconvenience of finding their favourite brand. Amazingly, our government has passed laws and is spending  taxpayers’ funds to show deference to fussy whiners who would harass poor traders to enable their own convenience. They assert rights over products they have never seen, not produced and had no hand in bringing to Hong Kong. Don’t harass mainland traders – start your own trading company.

Accommodate, innovate

If the MTR has a problem with overuse of their facilities, then innovative thinking is required. But not that innovative -this isn’t rocket science. Create a small charge for extra luggage that pays for dedicated repacking zones (with a reasonable surcharge) for day traders. Designate dedicated walking lanes in stations and sections of trains for those carrying luggage for whatever reason. Luggage carriers could ‘extra beep’ their Octopus cards (i.e. pay more) as they do for the First Class Cars on some MTR lines. Those using the service would appreciate being able to move themselves and their goods from point to point hassle-free and other customers would travel easy with encumbered passengers conveniently sequestered.

Hong Kong’s heritage is a city-state built by poor immigrants from China working hard in the honourable profession of trading. Antipathy for these people is a betrayal of who we are.

The use of industrial buildings as point of sales should be applauded as the big lifts and non-residential settings should move some of the activity away from inconvenienced habitants. But these premises indeterminate status is not ideal. While selective enforcement allows flexibility, it is also inimical to rule of law, creating uncertainty, a risk premium and temptation for corruption. However, formalising the status of former industrial buildings could provide an outlet for supplying demand in a productive manner.

A structure to find accommodation

Some may gripe about congestion and ‘disruption’ in their neighbourhoods. The accommodation of priorities and settling of grievances is one of the functions of a genuinely democratic structure. If we cannot accommodate a wonderful new source of business for Hong Kong, it is because of a failure of imagination, not by the government, but by the entire community. Civic society, business, government – all have failed in this instance. I wrote a similar piece two years ago advocating similar solutions, but little has been done. Indeed, this eminently foreseeable problem has become more aggravated. The time for action is now.

Police dealt firmly with protesters yesterday. However, our government should not be complicit with self-appointed victims and agitators by passing restrictive laws like those on the export of milk powder, but should work to accommodate this new business and promote the economic principles that illuminated the working spirit of Hong Kongers past and will hopefully not be extinguished in the future.