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How China Shops for Groceries

Earth’s largest economy has suffered food scare after food scare. As a result, a vigorous grey market of smuggled food supplies parts of the country with goods from abroad.
September 18, 2015, 4:30pm
Foto von kartografia via Flickr

China has amazing food. Hot pot. Dim sum. Every kind of dumpling. Mongolian barbecue. Fiery flavors from Sichuan. Incredible seafood. Extremely complex tea. Halal flavors influenced by Central Asia, and surprising profiles blown in by Southeast Asian monsoons. Connoisseurs say it is possible to never have the same meal twice in China. From fussy imperial banquets to plain and easy comfort food, Chinese cuisine has something for everyone.


China also has ghastly food. Its dairy products, including baby formula, have been tainted with melamine, made thousands of babies sick, and killed at least three. Food forgery has grabbed national headlines, with stuff like fake nectar being hawked as the real thing, even though it contains zero percent real honey. It wasn't too long ago that 16,000 diseased pig carcasses were found in Shanghai's drinking water. Gutter oil, which is basically used cooking oil harvested from waste drains, might account for 10 percent of all cooking oil in the country. After the massive chemical explosions in Tianjin last month, thousands of dead fish washed up on a nearby shore, even though the Chinese government claimed that the 700 tons of toxic sodium cyanide from the blast site had nothing to do with the sudden piscine death toll. Frozen meat that is 40 years old, which people call "zombie meat," has made its way into the Chinese food chain. The latest food scam is fake rice, which is basically potato mash shaped into grains, then coated with recycled waste plastic to give it the right sheen.

There's more, like fake noodles and fake jellyfish and fake Bordeaux, but you get the idea.

Earth's largest economy has suffered food scare after food scare. Put bluntly, that pile of noodles from your favorite street stall in Shanghai might only cost two or three bucks, but it's not unreasonable to think of it as a dice roll in lethality.


The obvious consequence is that consumer confidence has tanked. People don't trust food that is made in China, so as more Chinese families have a bit of cash to spare, and are able to travel abroad, vacations might include a few stops to stock up on groceries. Chinese tourists raid stores for baby formula in Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and beyond. Taking it to an extreme, 4,000 Chinese cruise passengers visited a Japanese village and bought everything in town.

But why cross the East China Sea when there is a shoppers' paradise much closer to home? Hong Kong's food safety standards are much more strictly enforced than in the rest of China, and that has fueled an incredibly robust grey market for food.

It used to work like this: Smugglers, or the people they hired, would make runs in Hong Kong's supermarkets and pack suitcases full of snacks, drinks, anything. They would walk the food across the border into Shenzhen, drop it off with parallel traders, and get paid for being a mule. It was an easy way for retirees to make a little extra money, but it has also created some facepalm-worthy public scenes, like red wine being funneled into Coke bottles to avoid suspicion, or truckloads of frozen American beef unloaded on an open street and packed into luggage in a frenzy.

All this walking back and forth really comes down to avoiding taxes on imported food. Customs authorities generally turn a blind eye to the parallel trade, as long as smugglers aren't being too obvious about it. After all, it's a relatively harmless business, and even the officers who man the customs checkpoints shop for grey market food.


The Chinese government launched a visa crackdown this year. Part of what they wanted to do was limit this trade between Hong Kong and Shenzhen because the smugglers don't pay taxes, but even state media admits that the move was ineffective.

Enterprising Hongkongers simply moved their business online. Shopping platforms like Taobao and TMall, both operated by Alibaba Group, now play host to the grey market. Middlemen are also active on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform that is like the bastard child of Facebook and WhatsApp. With a few taps on their smartphones, Chinese shoppers are able to order their groceries from Hong Kong, which are then couriered to them within a day or two.

Yet other people from Hong Kong hate the grey market. Protests are regularly seen near the border. Demonstrators are pissed because of occasional shortages of household goods and certain food items, as well as the price inflation of those consumer goods. Heckles are common, and fist fights do break out. These protests are actually part of a much larger, much more complicated issue, where cultural tensions and identity politics come into play.

Cross-border grocery shopping isn't anything out of the ordinary. A Palestinian family who lives in Jerusalem might pass through military checkpoints and buy pita bread from their favorite baker in the West Bank. Residents of southern Switzerland take short drives into Italy to stock their pantries. But what's happening in Hong Kong and Shenzhen is born out of necessity, based on the desire to not get poisoned by Chinese foodstuffs. In a way, much of modern Chinese life is defined by "nots." Chinese Millennials itch for schooling overseas so they can get jobs outside of China and not breathe polluted air. Pedestrians ignore strangers who need immediate medical help so they will not get sued. Wealthy Chinese families hide their assets overseas so they will not be threatened by the very weird Chinese economy.

When they can't even find solace in a safe meal, who can blame them?