Business & Economy

‘Made in Hong Kong’: Pandemic drives production independence from China

By Shirley Lau.

Hong Kong, China, Mar 18 (efe-epa).- About a month ago, Hong Kong marketing executive Anne Lam ended her decades-long practice of buying fresh produce imported from mainland China in favor of locally grown vegetables. It is a choice that brings inconvenience – it takes her half an hour more to go to a market that sells such products. But for the mother of two, it’s worth the effort.

“The coronavirus has pushed up prices of vegetables from China. Now they cost about the same as local veggies, which are safer to eat. So why should I buy Chinese products?” the 38-year-old said. “Besides, I think Hongkongers should support Hong Kong products. The virus has made me realize it is a big problem for Hong Kong to be so reliant on imports from China.”

Indeed, the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak has served as a crude reminder to many Hongkongers of the vulnerability of their city’s import-reliant economy.

This awakening, and in the face of temporary supply shortages of certain imported goods related to the virus, such as surgical masks and sanitizers, many people have turned to locally made products where they can. At the same time, a new breed of manufacturers have emerged to fill the market void.

From food to toilet paper, the Asian financial hub depends heavily on imports – especially those from mainland China – to survive. According to the Food and Health Bureau, 90 percent the total food supply in Hong Kong is imported, with China the leading source.

This dependency is largely accepted as the status quo when the going is good, but in times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a cause for concern.

While there has been no food supply shortage so far, prices of fresh produce in Hong Kong have spiked by 30 to 100 percent recently, as there has been an uptick in prices in mainland China.

Last month, rice, toilet paper and dried goods flew off supermarket shelves as people bought in bulk amid rumors of looming shortages, which were circulated online ahead of the Hong Kong government’s move to close some of the city’s border checkpoints with the mainland.

Collective panic and frustration ensued. And that unwittingly has worked in favor of the relatively small number of local farmers and food producers as people turned to their products, which are normally pricier than their cheap Chinese counterparts.

Mapopo Community Farm in the border town of Fanling, for example, has seen demand for its fresh vegetables go up notably since January. At one point, long queues formed at their biweekly market.

Near the entrance of the market, there is a big banner printed with the slogan “Hong Kong people eat Hong Kong vegetables.” Becky Au, who runs the farm, said many shoppers recently took note of the slogan and made it clear they agreed.

“Every city should have their own food supply. It’s dangerous to rely on one source that is mainland China. People have woken up to this fact,” the woman in her thirties told EFE.

Meanwhile, some enterprising types have capitalized on the outbreak by manufacturing coronavirus-related products. A health product company, for example, has come up with a locally made sanitizer, which is billed as “possibly the best solvent fighting the coronavirus.” The words “Made in HK” are in bold and printed in a big font on the bottle.

In addition, a new crop of manufacturers have set up factories to produce masks, responding to a supply shortage that has sent many Hongkongers queuing for hours for paper-thin respiratory shields. Many of these producers, such as Ho Sik-hon, are new to manufacturing.

“In Hong Kong, more than 95 percent of masks are imported. We live in a globalized world but when a crisis happens, things suddenly get localized and some countries curb the export of certain strategic products to protect their people,” Ho, the owner of a company that supplies sports medical products, told EFE. “This makes Hong Kong very vulnerable. We need to have a reasonable degree of manufacturing capacity, which is why we decided to dabble in mask production.”

To counter any risk of supply shortage, Ho sources raw materials from various parts of the world, from India to Germany. Production will begin in April and he expects to produce 4 million masks per month.

Ever since Hong Kong’s role as a manufacturing hub faded in the 1970s and the city’s economy evolved into one that counts financial services, trading and logistics and tourism as its key industries, the contribution of the local primary and manufacturing industries has been tiny, if not negligible. In 2019, the manufacturing sector accounted for just 1.1 percent of the GDP.

While the newly established manufacturing entities are in small numbers, Dr Chloe Lai, author and curator of the NGO Urban Diary that promotes sustainability, believes their emergence is adding momentum to an underlying drive to restructure Hong Kong’s economy, to make it less dependent on China, albeit to a limited degree.

It is a gradual, continuous process infused with localism, a sense of the Hong Kong identity, and frustration with China’s growing influence, and it gets reinforced each time a major event or movement takes place in the city, Lai said.

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