Hong Kong border towns welcome virus controls, despite trade hit

A woman wearing a protective face mask walks past stacks of toilet paper for sale in the Tsuen Wan district of Hong Kong on February 8, 2020 (AFP)
  • Agence France-Presse
  • February 9, 2020 5:56 AM

Hong Kong, China | Traders in Hong Kong's border towns are lamenting plunging business during the coronavirus outbreak but some residents say they are enjoying the absence of crowds of Chinese mainlanders.

The influx of migrants, tourists and traders has long been a controversial topic as the financial hub increasingly chafes under Beijing's authoritarian rule and the ever-rising cost of living.

The polarisation is especially stark in towns along the city's border with mainland China. 

They have become huge draws for "parallel traders" who buy up tax-free goods for re-sale in China, a booming trade but one that worsens over-crowding and spiralling commercial rents.

However, the coronavirus outbreak has closed all but two of the city's land borders with the mainland.

And on Saturday officials rolled out plans attempting to ensure -- with spot checks and daily phone calls -- that all arrivals from the mainland undergo 14 days of compulsory quarantine.

Parked next to one of the shuttered checkpoints earlier this week, a minibus driver said he had waited for three hours without picking up a single passenger.

The man, who gave his surname Lai, said he had been driving for four decades and never seen business so slow, not even during the 2002-03 SARS virus outbreak that killed 299 Hong Kongers.

"The situation is worse than what we had during SARS," the 70-year-old told AFP.

Four empty minibuses were ahead of him in the queue.

- Walkable streets -

Usually Lai could earn around HK$1,300 ($170) a day shuttling between the towns of Sheung Shui and Yuen Long -- another border district in northwest Hong Kong.

"I did not wear a mask in 2003 but now I wear one when I am driving," he said. "We transport people from all kinds of places after all." 

The crowds began dwindling during the Lunar New Year when the spread of the novel coronavirus through central China started being widely reported.

Then the border crossings began closing.

Sheung Shui, the first town passengers come to after passing through the now-shut Lo Wu checkpoint, was a frequent battleground between protesters and police during last year's months of pro-democracy rallies.

Sparked by a demand for greater democratic freedoms, many of the demonstrations had an anti-mainland feel and embraced local grievances about issues such as parallel traders.

A pharmacist who gave his surname as Shing said business was down 30 percent over the Lunar New Year, reaching 50 percent once the borders started closing.

Last year's protests also slammed trade.

But he said he understood the need to curb mainland arrivals.

"Maybe the government should have done it earlier," he said. "Because the sooner it contains the epidemic, the sooner our business can revive."

Some Sheung Shui locals said they welcomed the uncharacteristic quiet.

Candy Kwan, a mother of three, said her three grown-up children have been unable to find any surgical masks in recent weeks, a commodity snapped up across the city, including by parallel traders. 

She supported a complete closure of Hong Kong's border.

"What can matter more than human lives?" she asked. "I am feeling more comfortable on streets and less worried about infections after the checkpoint was closed."

Another Sheung Shui resident, a 70-year-old surnamed Chan, said she was angry with the government's partial closure of the border.

"It reacted like a toothpaste being squeezed," Chan said. "If it closed the border earlier, we might not have had to compete with mainland shoppers for masks."

© Agence France-Presse

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