The Hong Kong government has dropped all criminal charges against an elderly cardboard seller after her arrest sparked a public outcry, which saw 14,000 people signing a petition to support her and lawmakers taking to the streets in protest.
The announcement was made by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department this afternoon, just two days before the cardboard seller was due to appear in court. In a statement, the FEHD said it would not press charges against the 75-year-old, surnamed Chu, for “unlicensed hawking activity” after consulting the Department of Justice and “taking [Chu’s] background into consideration”.
In a statement, the department stressed that it would continue to “take appropriate enforcement action against unlicensed trafficking activities” in order to maintain environmental hygiene and avoid “public nuisance”.
The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) has come under fire after six of its officers arrested Chu last Sunday for selling cardboard scraps to a domestic helper for HKD1 at the Central piers. If prosecuted, Chu would have faced a HKD5,000 fine and jail time.
Chu told lawmaker Lai Chi-keong that her cardboard and trolley been confiscated, and she was required to pay HKD30 bail — leaving her with only HKD34 in her wallet. The 75-year-old scavenges and sells cardboard for a living; lawmaker Lai Chi-keong, who complained to the government on Chu’s behalf, wrote on Facebook that she was eligible for social security, but refused them in order to be financially independent, despite suffering from a number of chronic illnesses.
The FEHD was widely criticized by civilians after Chu’s case came to light, and a Civic Party petition demanding that the FEHD drop their charges against Chu and apologize to her received 14,000 signatures in just five days. Civic Party lawmakers, including party leader Alvin Leung, led a protest outside government offices in Admiralty when handing the petition in, saying that the charges were unjust.
Leung told reporters that he believed the backlash against the FEHD showed the public’s dissatisfaction at government procedure, claiming that FEHD officers have a “double standard” and routinely turned a blind eye to younger people selling things without a license.
Many elderly Hongkongers collect and sell rubbish; in a 2006 study by the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS), over 70 percent of elderly scavengers said they did it for financial reasons, 33 percent of whom said collecting rubbish was their main source of income. Dr. Vivian Lou, who conducted the study, told the SCMP that there are no official statistics on the number of people out there salvaging for money, noting that “they are a group forgotten by society”.