28 October 2016
Will the change in visa policy discourage mainland tourists, as well as parallel traders, from coming to Hong Kong? Photo: HKEJ
Will the change in visa policy discourage mainland tourists, as well as parallel traders, from coming to Hong Kong? Photo: HKEJ

Political calculations behind new visa policy

After a series of protests in Hong Kong against parallel traders, Beijing announced a new visa policy Monday limiting the number of cross-border visits by Shenzhen residents to one a week.

It appears to be an attempt by the central government to ease the anger of Hongkongers about the negative effects on their quality of life from the massive influx of tourists and parallel traders from the mainland.

While it may seem the top leaders have listened to the voice of Hongkongers in deciding to change the policy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Beijing is turning to a softer approach to please them.

In fact, they may merely be abandoning the right of Shenzhen residents to visit Hong Kong freely, with a view to imposing tighter rule in Hong Kong.

The central government’s policy change is ostensibly based on the needs of people in the northern New Territories. 

It could help ease tensions over the parallel traders who come to Hong Kong frequently to buy household products for resale in the mainland.

Many Hongkongers living near the border blame the traders for shortages and overcrowding, and there have been several demonstrations against them.

But are entry curbs the ultimate solution to solve the parallel trading problem and bring back a normal life for these Hongkongers?

The growing parallel trade in recent years is a result for strong demand among mainlanders for products such as milk powder sold in Hong Kong, which they trust more than those sold in China even though they may be of the same brands.

So it is ultimately a food safety issue that Beijing needs to deal with, not just a matter of easing the tension between the two places.

To solve the parallel trading problem, the central government should bear the responsibility of strictly monitoring product safety, so as to win back the trust of mainlanders in the products sold in the domestic market.

The new visa policy will not, by itself, solve the problem of parallel trading.

To maintain the influx of goods from Hong Kong, the masterminds behind the smuggling can still rely on Hongkongers with permits to visit the mainland without restriction.

Beijing and the Shenzhen authorities can now point the fingers at Hong Kong if protests continue against parallel trading, as they can say they have done what they can to solve the problem, and the parallel traders will now all be based in Hong Kong.

The central government could blame the Hong Kong government for not handling the issue well, and the city could be forced to take the blame for deteriorating mainland-Hong Kong relations.

That could result in a new round of anti-Hong Kong sentiment in the mainland. 

It’s rare for Beijing to respond so quickly to protests in Hong Kong in such a positive way.

And the decisions are clearly being made by the central government, rather than by Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying and his team.

That could be another sign that Beijing is taking more control of matters related to Hong Kong.

It can’t be ruled out that political calculations lie behind Beijing’s decision to tighten the visa policy.

Hong Kong has been debating the reform package for the 2017 election for chief executive in recent months, and the government is expected to issue its final proposal within weeks for approval by the Legislative Council.

As the city is nearly evenly divided between those who would support and those who would oppose a proposal based on a framework laid down by Beijing in August, the package could well fail to attract enough votes to be passed in Legco.

Hongkongers who oppose Beijing’s plan do so mainly because they do not trust the central authorities very much.

They want to maintain Hong Kong’s uniqueness under Beijing’s ultimate rule.

The central government’s timely decision on the visits by Shenzhen residents could be intended to send a message that Beijing is prepared to change its policies to please Hongkongers.

That should help Beijing to win back some support in the battle for public opinion on its reform framework.

As the electoral reform package now lacks four votes to be passed by Legco, the change in visa policy could help Beijing lure support for it from some of the more moderate pan-democrats.

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EJ Insight writer

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