Thousands took to Sheung Shui’s streets on Saturday to protest against parallel traders from China, who are accused of littering the neighbourhood and distorting the local economy.

The border town popular among visitors from the mainland saw crowds protest under the slogan “Reclaim Sheung Shui,” while shouting “Hongkongers, add oil!”

Participants invited onlookers to join them while some set up points along the route to distribute free drinks to those marching in the intense heat. Many nearby shops had closed ahead of the event.

The march saw confrontations between participants and bystanders, with reports of police using pepper spray and batons against protesters on Lung Sum Avenue footbridge and near Landmark North shopping mall.

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Leung Kam-shing – convenor of the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group – which helped to organise the event, said over 30,000 had attended. Police have yet to release their turnout estimate.

The group said that 462 shops in Sheung Shui, including pharmacies and money exchange shops, mostly served mainland visitors. The figure has risen from 142 such shops in 2013. They added that residents were forced to bear higher prices and had fewer choices when buying groceries, plus they were left to deal with discarded packaging left behind by traders who resell certain goods in mainland China.

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Saturday’s protest, like the Tuen Mun march against female performers the week before, rode on the momentum of recent protests sparked by the government’s suspended extradition bill, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets in solidarity.

“The anti-extradition bill issue and the ‘reclaim [Sheung Shui]’ action are not binary oppositions,” organisers said in a statement ahead of the rally. “The anti-extradition bill movement is caused by the governance failure of the Hong Kong government and an unrepresentative legislature – the parallel trader problem is the same.”

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The march began at the basketball court of the North District Sports Ground at 3:30pm, ending at Sheung Shui Garden No. 1 a short distance away.

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told HKFP that the public anger over the extradition bill has fed into other local grievances including parallel trading.

Fernando Cheung. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

“The government seems to be basically keeping a hands free approach and allowing this whole town [to] become a parallel traders paradise, severely affecting the locals’ livelihood,” Cheung said. “The extradition bill is the last straw that broke the camel’s back. People can no longer stand a government that is not representative of the interests of the Hong Kong people… parallel trading is [another] example of that.”

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

As the day wore on, protesters removed barriers divided the lanes on San Wan Road and sought to set up their own barricades along San Fung Avenue. HKFP saw one member of the press stretchered away by paramedics after suffering an injury.

A protester who was being pursued by police was seen climbing over the railing of a footbridge connected to Landmark North before being pulled back in. Police said the man fled after officers approached him on suspicion of obstructing a cordon line. He was subsequently arrested for “unlawful assembly.”

“It was you who taught us that peaceful marches are no use,” reads some graffiti in Sheung Shui. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Later, protesters surrounded a store catering to traders from the mainland, throwing their products on the floor, hurling objects and forcing it to close.

Other stores were barricaded by demonstrators using metal frames prised from nearby roads.

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The government condemned the incidents as violent, saying some protesters had deliberately blocked roads, hurled iron poles, scattered an unknown powder, charged cordon lines and assaulted police officers.

“[T]he government always respects the public’s right to express their views and demands in a peaceful, rational and orderly manner, and that this reflects the precious freedom of expression in Hong Kong and lawful quality of the Hong Kong people. But a minority of protesters used violence to charge and cause damage,” the statement read. “It is believed the majority of Hong Kong people would also disapprove such unlawful acts.”

Endemic problem

The phenomenon of parallel trading relates to salespeople exploiting a multiple entry visa policy to import tax-free items from Hong Kong across the border, often resulting in a shortage of goods and elevated retail prices in the northern New Territories. Sheung Shui is one of the most affected neighbourhoods.

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Explainer: Sheung Shui in shambles as parallel traders leave a trail of waste

Traders have been filmed using public spaces outside Sheung Shui MTR station to pack their goods before crossing the border, blocking traffic as well as littering the roads with packaging.

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

“Reclaiming Sheung Shui” also became a cause championed by localists, who held a spate of protest marches around 2015. The government later introduced measures to curb parallel traders, such as putting a cap on how much baby formula each person could buy.

There were also restrictions placed on the number of times Shenzhen residents could visit Hong Kong, but Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said on Thursday that the restrictions can be “easily evaded.”

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

“Once their visa has expired, they can apply for a new one immediately and come to Hong Kong again,” Lam said. “The so-called ‘once per week’ system is effectively dead.”

Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

In a video posted to the Hong Kong Police Force Twitter feed, Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung urged demonstrators to “stop the violence” and leave the area as soon as possible.

Organisers of Saturday’s rally received a letter of no objection from the police on Friday, pledging that the march would be peaceful.

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.