Hong Kong’s Hot Commodities

Banned books and milk powder: What do they have in common?

This: They are among the most prized commodities on the must-buy list for many of the millions of Chinese tourists who come to Hong Kong every year.

In this former British colony, books considered too politically sensitive for mainland China are widely available in bookshops. And since news emerged two years ago that many young children in China had died or fallen seriously ill after drinking local formula adulterated with the toxic chemical melamine, imported milk powder has become a priority purchase for our visitors.

When a Chinese writer whose books are banned in China visited Hong Kong recently, I asked if he would have time to meet up for a chat.

“I would love to, but I’m afraid I have something really important to get done first,” he replied.

I thought he was probably busy with his new book, which daringly criticizes the country’s top leadership. But he surprised me.

“I have to take a crate of baby milk powder across the border for a friend,” he said. “I also have to buy more for my son before I leave. You know what milk is like in China,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Food safety was one key issue that prompted me to leave Beijing two years ago. When I became pregnant, everything that residents complain about in Beijing — air pollution, dangerous roads, and most importantly, food safety — suddenly became real issues.

Although that was before the tainted-milk scandal broke, there had been plenty of food scares floating around: The fake baby formula that killed 12 babies in 2004, the carcinogenic food-coloring that found its way into many food products in 2005, not to mention fake eggs, fake vaccines and flour tainted with powdered lime.

Just months after we returned to Hong Kong, news about the melamine-laced milk emerged — more than 300,000 infants were made seriously ill and at least six died from kidney stones resulting from drinking formula adulterated with the industrial chemical.

So it is unsurprising that many Chinese tourists flock to Hong Kong to stock up on foreign-produced milk powder. Here, imported goods are more readily available and less heavily taxed. In a busy, neon-lit shopping area, there is even a book shop popular with mainland Chinese tourists that specializes in books banned in China — and Japanese milk powder.

The proprietor told me that sales of milk powder surged after the melamine scandal in 2008. Nowadays, 90 percent of his customers are from mainland China and he sells up to 1,800 units of milk powder per month — bringing in double the profits he makes from books.

The Chinese media has also chronicled stories about people scrambling for foreign baby formula through a variety of channels, be it begging families living abroad to send it or paying couriers to sneak it in from Hong Kong.

My cousin, a working mother from southern China, used to queue up with hundreds of people to cross over to Macau to buy milk for her baby.

“Nobody trusts locally produced milk,” she fumed. “In fact, you never know what is safe to eat and what’s not.”

So popular is the demand for foreign-made milk powder that the Chinese tax authorities imposed a new rule in September that drastically cuts the duty-free allowance for milk powder brought into the country.

The lives of millions of Chinese babies are still at risk. This year, melamine-laced milk resurfaced in the market apparently recycled from contaminated powder that was not destroyed in the 2008 scandal. Recently, there have been accusations that a Chinese-brand milk-powder causes premature puberty in baby girls — although the manufacturer denied it.

Parents of children affected by the last scandal are outraged. They say this is happening because corrupt officials who condone malpractice have gone unpunished, while their own cries for help have been silenced. A father who campaigned on behalf of other families was recently jailed for two-and-a-half years. Another father, whose one-year-old died of urinary system failure due to tainted milk, was given “re-education through labor” detention this year for daring to complain on the Internet.

So it is perhaps not so amusing that even dissident authors, who cannot take their own books home, should make it a priority to take something they can take back to China: milk powder. But millions of parents who cannot afford to travel outside mainland China are less lucky.

One mother of a three-year-old girl who got kidney stones from drinking toxic milk told me that poorer families like them simply do not have a choice.

“People round here just can’t afford imported milk, let alone going to Hong Kong,” she said. “We feel hopeless but what can we do?”

Verna Yu, a freelance writer.