It was eight in the evening on Christmas Eve at the Futian border crossing in Shenzhen. A customs officer saw a white man in his 50s with a large suitcase and a bulging backpack. He called him over for inspection.
The “guilao” was nervous and not happy; but he had no alternative but to open his bags. Inside, the officer found no personal items but 19 tins of Nutrilon baby powder. This is a famous Dutch brand with a history of 113 years that is extremely popular in mainland China.
Checking the man’s passport, the officer found that it was his second visit to Shenzhen from Hong Kong that day. Further investigations revealed that the man, an American, was a smuggler of milk powder who had over the previous 12 months earned more than HK$100,000 from the business.
It was the first time Shenzhen customs had caught a guilao doing this and joining the army of smugglers who include Southeast and South Asians, Africans, Hong Kong residents and mainlanders.
The trade has become a multimillion-dollar business since contamination of locally produced powder persuaded many mainland mothers to buy foreign brands and, preferably, tins from abroad.
So large was the volume bought in Hong Kong that, as from March 1, 2013, the government imposed a limit of two cans, or 1.8 kilograms of infant formula powder, on people leaving the city; this was in order to ensure sufficient supply for local mothers. It was a controversial decision, going against the city’s long-held principle of free trade and making foreign brands in the mainland scarcer and more expensive.
Offenders are liable on conviction to a fine of HK$500,000 or imprisonment for two years.
The limit sparked the trade. The flood of mainland visitors to Hong Kong gives those in the business ample opportunity. Members of tour groups can be seen leaving with identical bags each containing two cans. Others cross the border each day, sometimes several times, carrying the powder and other goods in demand on the mainland side.
In November 2014, anti-corruption investigators arrested eight customs officials at the Shatoujiao-Sha Tau Kok control point for taking more than a million yuan in bribes from smugglers of goods, including milk powder.
What surprised the officers in Futian was the fact that a guilao was doing it. He initially claimed that all 19 cans were for his own use. But they found firmly clenched in his hand a notebook with a detailed account of his business – dates, times, places and payments. He received a fee of HK$380 for each journey and often made the journey to Shenzhen twice a day.
From December 2013, he had earned a total of more than HK$100,000, with a maximum of HK$2,430 in one day.
The officers are continuing their investigation, to try to ascertain the supply and sale chain to which the American belongs. In October 2014, the Futian post introduced a new surveillance area and equipment to improve their detection of smuggled goods.
It is likely that the American is not the only guilao involved. Historically, Caucasians have enjoyed a privilege in going through customs, because officers consider them less likely to smuggle goods than people of other races and assume that they hold white-collar jobs.
Most unfortunate are blacks going through border posts in southern China. Among the large African population who live in Guangzhou are a number who are involved in smuggling, especially of drugs. This has made customs officers more suspicious of and likely to check blacks.
A black American lady professor who is fluent in Mandarin reports that she had been subjected to so many searches at the border that she stopped speaking Chinese, in the hope of avoiding a long list of questions and accelerating the process.
In many years of crossing the border, I have been stopped only twice – once to remove fresh fruit from my suitcase and once to have my bag searched on suspicion of smuggling Bibles. The officer found none.
The story also reflects the changing realities of the world. In the 1980s, only foreigners and overseas Chinese with Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were allowed into the Friendship Store in Beijing to buy imported goods; ordinary Chinese looked on enviously outside, their hands full of renminbi that could not be used in the shop.
The FEC has been long abolished; now it is mainlanders who queue up to buy Louis Vuitton handbags and Gucci jackets in the shops on Canton Road, while guilao and Hong Kong people gape at them from the pavement. It is they who go to Lo Wu to buy the fakes.
One hotel in Macau has hired two foreigners to stand in military uniform, like the soldiers outside Buckingham Palace, outside the front door. Mainland tourists have photographs taken of themselves next to the “soldiers”, to the merriment of their friends and family.
Who are the coolies now?
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