Ho Pui-shan (Louise Ho) became Hong Kong’s new Commissioner of Customs and Excise on October 21. During the press conference (link in Cantonese) with media after taking the position, she mentioned combatting smuggling as one of the tasks of her agency, including smuggling of Australian lobster, in the context of discussing the agency’s duties to safeguard national security.

During the press conference, Ho stated that “in the future, we will strive to maintain customs security in four major areas,” including to protect national security and prevent terrorism; improve clearance capabilities and facilitation within the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area; promote digital transformation of customs work; and strengthen front-line work management.

When asked about performing duties in accordance with the Hong Kong National Security Law, Ho mentioned that “in addition to raising awareness of maintaining national security, I hope that front-line personnel ... if they encounter activities that endanger or may endanger national security when performing their daily duties, can act proactively in preventing, stopping and punishing [these activities].” In this regard, she cited Hong Kong and mainland Customs’ joint efforts to combat lobster smuggling as an example of their daily duties:

Recently, people have noticed that we are cooperating with the mainland Customs to crack down on a lobster smuggling group. It started with the mainland imposing stricter inspection and quarantine measures on Australian lobsters last October. Therefore, starting from November, the Australians suspended lobster exporting to mainland. However, smuggling groups use this opportunity to first airlift Australian lobster to Hong Kong, and then find the opportunity to transport it to the mainland by speedboat. So on the surface, it looks like a simple case of smuggling, but these smuggling activities undermine our country's trade restricting measures against Australia. Therefore, cracking down on these lobster smuggling activities is a very important task to maintain national security, and we should do it proactively.

When asked about the key Customs’ duties in terms of protecting national security, Ho said:

The customs chief is one of the members of the National Security Commission, so Hong Kong customs will actively cooperate with the work of the National Security Commission. We will keep close contact ... I also hope to have the opportunity to communicate with the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and discuss what other contributions the customs can make in safeguarding national security.

China started imposing enhanced inspection requirements on Australian lobsters last year to look for trace elements of minerals and metals, which resulted in delays in customs clearance and ultimately reduced lobster exports from Australia to China. Some reports suggested that it is part of a “sweeping retaliation” against the Australian government’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, but the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that “according to law, the Chinese customs takes inspection and quarantine measures on imported seafood products and releases them after finding they meet the criteria.”

In the meantime, Hong Kong has become the world’s largest importer of Australian lobsters. Data shows that Hong Kong’s lobster imports in August are 92 times (link in Chinese) the import value of last August. Most of the increase is speculated to flow to the mainland, through either legal or illegal methods.

Recently, Hong Kong Customs has cracked down on lobster smuggling in a number of ways:.

  • Hong Kong Customs reported (link in Chinese) that in July of this year, the mainland law enforcement confiscated 2,200 kg of smuggled Australian lobsters, valued at about 1.7 million Hong Kong dollars (about USD 218,690), arrested seven people, and seized two fishing boats.
  • Between August and September, Hong Kong Customs seized about 3,100 kilograms of Australian lobsters, valued at about 2.5 million Hong Kong dollars (about USD 321,603), arrested six people, and seized one fishing boat.
  • During a raid in October, Hong Kong Customs seized 228 tons of undeclared Australian lobsters with a market value of about 180 million Hong Kong dollars (approximately 23 million USD) and arrested seven people.

Australian lobster is not the only target of Hong Kong Customs. A large scale meat smuggling supply chain (link in Chinese) has formed due to the mainland's strong demand for meat and seafood, difference in trade requirements and tariffs, as well as the price differences. As a result, Hong Kong has doubled down on its crackdown on smuggling. Last month, one senior marine officer was killed during a high-speed chase with smugglers when her vessel was rammed by smugglers. The incident led to calls for (link in Chinese) further efforts to combat smuggling activities.