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In Hong Kong, baby formula fuels ongoing discord with mainland China

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 7:03 p.m.

BEIJING — In Hong Kong, baby formula has become a precious commodity, kept under lock and key.

Accusations that mainland Chinese are trying to buy up the semi-autonomous territory's supply have led to near-riots and become the latest source of discord with Beijing.

Before the recent Lunar New Year, a major gift-buying time in China, Hong Kong announced an emergency two-can limit. Inspectors patrolling the subways near the border crossing into Shenzhen, China, look for people smuggling cases of the powder. Hong Kong officials say they have called back customs inspectors from retirement to help prevent baby formula from being spirited to the mainland.

“If someone tries to go over with more than the 4 pounds allowed, we are going to deal with it by the law, with no regard for circumstance,” Hong Kong's deputy head of customs, Yu Koon-hing, said at a news conference in early February.

On Friday, the purchase restriction became permanent, along with tough new penalties of up to two years in prison and a fine of $64,500.

To ensure a secure supply for Hong Kongers, a hot line was set up Feb. 1 allowing parents to place formula orders directly with overseas warehouses. The formula mostly comes from Europe, the United States and Australia.

The dispute cast in sharp focus Hong Kong's fear of being swamped by 1.3 billion mainlanders, who are increasingly affluent and mobile. About 30 million Chinese, more than triple the territory's population, visit Hong Kong each year — and they like to shop.

They also are not averse to a bargain. Hong Kong prices are lower for many imported products because of the depreciating U.S. dollar (to which Hong Kong's currency is pegged) and lower tariffs.

Mainland traders with hand trucks and backpacks frequently clear Hong Kong store shelves of baby formula, small electronics and imported cookies and noodles. This behavior has earned them the nickname “locusts” in Hong Kong.

“Look at what these locusts are taking: our places to sleep, our spots in school, our milk powder, and now our chicken broth!” one enraged resident exclaimed in a January Facebook posting.

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