Chaotic Hong Kong shopping protests latest sign of resentment against China's growing sway

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HONG KONG — Hong Kong police said Monday they arrested more than three dozen people involved in scuffles that broke out at a weekend protest against the growing influx of mainland Chinese shoppers.

Police officers drew batons and used pepper spray on the crowds after the demonstration Sunday in a border town turned unruly. The protesters clashed with crowds of residents opposed to the event who taunted them along the route.

Police said 38 people were arrested including a 13-year-old boy and 10 officers were injured.

Hundreds turned out for the third major protest in the past month to target the mainland shoppers, who have been blamed for voracious buying habits that distort the local economy.

The protesters marched in the suburban district of Yuen Long, near the border with China. The route went through a neighborhood with dozens of pharmacies selling imported baby formula to cater to mainland shoppers. Chinese shun domestic brands after repeated food safety scares including a 2008 melamine-tainted milk scandal that killed at least six babies.

Baby formula is such a hot commodity for mainland visitors that Hong Kong, which has a reputation for authentic and high-quality goods, restricts the amount people can take out of the city.

Smartphones, cosmetics, medicine and luxury goods are also popular purchases in Hong Kong, where a lack of sales tax makes them cheaper. The shoppers, usually seen in big groups with wheelie suitcases, often work for shadowy networks that organize the resale of the goods across the border for a profit, in what's known as parallel trading.

"There is a lot of anger from other people on Chinese smugglers because we just don't like how they drive up all the prices, drive up everything, create a lot of chaos, and we aren't benefiting from it," said protester Kelvin Lee, who was with Hong Kong Indigenous, one of two groups that organized the demonstration.

The Yuen Long demonstration follows two other rowdy protests at shopping malls in other parts of Hong Kong's northern suburbs last month. Police also drew batons and unleashed pepper spray against protesters heckling Chinese shoppers at those demonstrations, arresting a total of 19 people.

The protests reflect resentment among Hong Kongers against swelling ranks of mainland Chinese visitors.

Last year, 47.3 million mainlanders visited the specially administered Chinese region, up 16 percent from the year before. Mainland visitors are estimated to be responsible for a third of retail sales in Hong Kong.

Such resentment also helped fuel massive pro-democracy protests that rocked the Asian financial center for 11 weeks last year. The student-led "Umbrella Movement" protesters occupied streets to demand Hong Kong abandon Beijing's plan to restrict inaugural 2017 elections for the city's top leader.

After police cleared protesters off the streets of the Mong Kok neighborhood in early December, some frustrated protesters started holding late night flash mob-style occupations at stores in the area frequented by mainland shoppers. They were inspired by a call from Hong Kong's unpopular Beijing-backed leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, for people to go shopping after the police clearance.

The Hong Kong government says it's trying to clamp down on parallel trading. More than 1,900 mainlanders have been arrested in the past two years on suspicion of being involved while 25,000 others have been banned from entering the city for the same reason.

Lee said residents of the suburban towns were fed up with the traffic jams and piles of garbage created by mainland Chinese shoppers, who also have a reputation for bad manners and loutish behavior.

"A lot of Chinese who are coming to shop block the roads with their luggage," he said. "They leave a lot of rubbish, for example, all the cardboard boxes (from their purchases) left in the middle of the road."

The protesters also complain that the mainlanders' shopping sprees drive up retail rents and force out ordinary shopkeepers.

Many shopkeepers rolled down their storefront shutters ahead of Sunday's protest and few mainland Chinese visitors were seen on the streets, drawing complaints from local residents.

"They've made it so that everyone has had to close up shop, and they can't do business. People have to pay rent," said Choi Wai-leung, 61.

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