BEIJING - In Hong Kong, baby formula has become a precious commodity, kept under lock and key.
Accusations that mainland Chinese are trying to buy up the semiautonomous territory's entire supply have led to near-riots and have become the latest source of discord with Beijing.
Before the recent Lunar New Year, a major gift-buying time in China, Hong Kong announced an emergency two-can limit. Inspectors patrolling the subways near the border crossing into Shenzhen, China, look for people smuggling cases of the precious powder. Hong Kong officials say they have called back customs inspectors from retirement to help prevent baby formula from being spirited to the mainland.
"If someone tries to go over with more than the four pounds allowed, we are going to deal with it by the law, with no regard for circumstance," Hong Kong's deputy head of customs, Yu Koon-hing, said in early February.
On Friday, the purchase restriction became permanent, along with tough new penalties of up to two years in prison and a fine of $64,500.
To ensure a secure supply for Hong Kongers, a hot line was set up Feb. 1 allowing parents to place formula orders directly with overseas warehouses. The formula mostly comes from Europe, the United States and Australia.
At its heart, the dispute cast in sharp focus Hong Kong's fear of being swamped by 1.3 billion mainlanders, who are increasingly affluent and mobile. About 30 million Chinese, more than triple the territory's population, visit Hong Kong each year, and they like to shop.
They also are not averse to a bargain. Hong Kong prices are lower for many imported products because of the depreciating U.S. dollar (to which Hong Kong's currency is pegged) and lower tariffs.
Mainland traders with hand trucks and backpacks frequently clear Hong Kong store shelves of baby formula, small electronics and imported cookies and noodles, earning them the nickname "locusts" in Hong Kong.
"Chinese go back to China," read a banner at a demonstration over baby formula and other products in September, where Hong Kong residents waved Union Jack flags, expressing nostalgia for British rule, in the days before the former colony reverted to Chinese control in 1997.