Shenzhen Customs officers have apprehended 11 people smuggling 2,834 tons of charcoal into overseas markets through Hong Kong.
The smugglers put large amounts of charcoal into small packages. They then hid them in ships' cargos to escape customs inspection. The charcoal was then re-packaged in Hong Kong and shipped to Japan and South Korea.
The charcoal was mainly made by several manufacturers in Chengdu and Yibin in Sichuan province. It was transported to Shenzhen by the city's logistics companies.
An official, surnamed He, at the Anti-Smuggling Bureau of Shenzhen Customs, is in charge of the case. He explained that the charcoal was illegally exported to Japan and South Korea to earn high profits.
"Some types of high-quality charcoals are priced around 4,000 yuan (about $644) per ton in the domestic market. But in Japan and South Korea, the price could be as high as 30,000 yuan a ton - almost seven times higher," He said.
"The high economic benefits have encouraged people to take up this illegal activity," he told reporters during a press conference in Shenzhen on Friday.
The production of charcoal is often used in the metallurgical industry and smoke-free barbecues. But it is highly damaging to forests and causes considerable pollution. Five to 10 tons of natural timber is consumed to produce just a ton of charcoal.
"After nearly a year's co-investigation with Chengdu Customs, we carried out the operation on May 19. More than 200 anti-smuggling officials from Shenzhen Customs were dispatched to over 20 suspected criminal sites. Officers detained 11 people suspected of operating the illegal business," he said.
Shenzhen Customs swoop on charcoal smuggling gang
Japan and South Korea have a huge demand for charcoal. The two countries, however, have had stringent restrictions on domestic charcoal production for many years. This is in an effort to protect their environments. It has prompted some people in the two countries to import charcoal from elsewhere.
Exports of charcoal produced directly from burning wood are prohibited on the mainland.
Shenzhen Customs said it had previously detected a number of cases of people suspected of smuggling charcoal. But it was hard for officers to enforce proper punishments because only small quantities of charcoal had been involved.
According to the law, smuggling more than 10 tons of charcoal will be subject to criminal liability. The case is considered "serious" when the amount smuggled exceeds 50 tons.
It is not the first charcoal smuggling case handled by Shenzhen Customs this year. On March 24, customs officers seized 2,120 kilograms of smuggled charcoal at Wenjindu Port.
The illegal business has also been found in other mainland cities. Early this year, Nanning Customs smashed a gang attempting to smuggle charcoal from the China-Vietnam border. Ningbo Customs also broke similar cases previously.
Hong Kong customs said it was committed to preventing the importation and exportation of any illegal items.