Many Chinese are now trying their best to keep their overseas stay or travels a top secret.
The reason: if relatives and friends know that you are going abroad, they will surely ask you to buy all sorts of things, as many foreign goods are cheaper outside the mainland.
This gives rise to all sorts of problems, as a postgraduate student at the University of Hong Kong discovered recently. The student, who was traveling back home to the mainland for a New Year break, was saddled with a big bill for oversized baggage before she could board the plane to Chongqing, her hometown.
What was inside her luggage could be enough to open a mini store: perfume, mascara, eye shadow, heat rubs, diapers, toothbrushes, shoes, a watch, an iPhone 6 Plus and even a big stainless steel wok.
But none of the items was for the girl’s own use. Following requests from her friends, she was just carrying stuff for others.
And, after going through all the trouble — apart from the travel hassle, shopping for others meant finding the right stores, comparing prices, etc. — all the girl got from her friends was complaints, not gratitude.
Some of her friends were unhappy as they found that prices were higher than what they got on Chinese online mall Taobao, while others said the product model or color was not what they wanted.
“My friends on the mainland always think that I can just drop in at a shop and finish the shopping list under one roof, but that’s not the case,” she said.
To fill the ‘orders’, she often has to travel all around Hong Kong. For instance, she would buy a certain kind of body lotion at Sa Sa, but was able to find a South Korean facial cream only at a small shop in a remote corner in Kwun Tong.
Hong Kong is known for long work and study hours, so buying things for others means one has to forego the already limited spare time.
Collecting payment is a big hassle too.
First you must keep all the receipts and invoices intact for record. Exchange rates can be another tricky issue. If you are not good at calculation, you may even end up with losses.
Mainlanders studying or working in Hong Kong may use credit cards to buy things for others but the exchange rate adopted by banks can be higher than the ones the friends find on the web. This means that one may incur losses if the friends just give you the money in renminbi, based on the rates they find on Baidu.
There is one more challenge: the Chinese Customs. A mainland student said that he was once levied duties – several hundreds of yuan in total on a cellphone and an iPad that he bought for friends – at Futian port, a checkpoint on the border between Hong Kong and the mainland.
In 2010, Chinese customs authorities lifted the taxable threshold on goods bought overseas for individual use to no more than 5,000 yuan (US$804). Duties are charged at 10 percent for electronic products, 20-30 percent for watches and 50 percent for tobacco, alcohol and cosmetic products.
Chinese customs officers are lax most of the time but if you are unfortunate enough to be caught taking anything expensive without declaration, you will be committing a smuggling offence and have to pay up the duty and fines yourself.
Those buying things on behalf of others may also risk forfeiting their student visa as some countries categorize this as a business activity.
When iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus were not yet launched in China, many mainlanders studying or working in Hong Kong were overwhelmed by requests from their friends – even acquaintances who barely contacted you in years – to buy the much sought-after gadgets.
Back then one joked on a forum that one’s reply to messages and sudden greetings from mainland friends – from “long time, no see” to “I miss you” – should be that “All iPhones are sold out in Hong Kong”.
After the new iPhones became available in China since October last year, the situation barely changed as a baseline model iPhone 6 is sold at a price almost one fifth higher than the level in Hong Kong. The bombardment of requests continues.
Many hoped that the situation would improve, but the iPhone is still among the most coveted goods from Hong Kong or anywhere else – especially before the Lunar New Year.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong locals are becoming increasingly resentful of the mainlanders for causing shortages in the city.
So, it’s a double whammy for the Chinese who are asked to shop for their friends and relatives back home.
– Contact the writer at [email protected]