A series of co-ordinated customs raids on outlets of a Hong Kong retail chain – whose founder is accused of breaking the city’s tough new national security laws – has sparked claims that the action was politically motivated.

The raids by Hong Kong Customs on a warehouse and 25 stores in 18 districts across the city belonging to the chain, AboutThai, took place on Thursday. Customs chiefs say they were carried out in connection with missing safety warnings on cleaning products.

An AbouThai store. File photo: AbouThai.

AbouThai sells imported products from Thailand and its founder, Mike Lam, is one of 47 democrats charged under the national security law. Lam is currently on bail accused of conspiring to subvert state power in February over his participation in a primary election for the since-postponed Legislative Council election.

During the primary election, AbouThai storefronts were used as polling stations. Also, in the wake of the raids, some other pro-democracy stores have introduced promotions to encourage people to shop there.

Customs investigators accuse the group of violating Consumer Goods Safety Regulations for not putting bilingual warnings or cautions on 14 types of shower gel, household cleaning detergents, and clothing bleaches. According to AbouThai, the value of merchandise seized in the raids was close to HK$1 million.

On Friday, the Customs and Excise Department said that 8,805 products worth around HK$400,000 were seized from AbouThai’s 25 stores across Hong Kong and a warehouse in Tsuen Wan. The department added that a 33-year-old male company director had been arrested and released on bail.

Investigation launched

Vincent Chan, deputy head of Consumer Goods Safety Division, said that an investigation was launched after complaints were received that the group had violated safety regulations.

As part of the probe, investigators discovered that 12 products only carried warnings in Thai, and two had cautions in both English and Thai. Current regulations state that products have to have both Chinese and English safety instructions on them.

The chain said that they were sorry for their negligence, but also described the actions of customs as “extreme” in a Facebook post on Thursday.

“Is it necessary to seize products in the warehouse that haven’t been delivered to the stores?” the post read, before going on to say that what it termed ”continuous repression” had forced AbouThai to ”stoop to compromise here, we only wish to continue serving Hong Kong people…”

Vincent Chan, deputy head of Consumer Goods Safety Division, said that the department had reasons to believe that the group would not add a label to the goods in the warehouse, as the products in the stores did not have labels on them.

The deputy head also denied claims that the scale of the operation was dispoportionate.

Vincent Chan
Vincent Chan, deputy head of Consumer Goods Safety Division in Hong Kong Customs in a press briefing on Friday. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

“The group has retail spots in almost all 18 districts in Hong Kong, and also a sizable warehouse,” said Chan. “Therefore the number of people and amount of resources used were definitely larger.”

The department has also said it “strongly condemns any false accusation maliciously alleging that its law enforcement action against the trader is ‘repression’.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.