Hong Kong’s Protest Economy

Anti-government protesters demonstrate during a protest at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong, China, January 12, 2020. (Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)
“It’s like believing in God, and believing that God will destroy the Chinese Communist Party.”

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D en Law has made it a habit to check her phone app and look for “yellow restaurants” whenever she eats out.

Since last April, when increasingly violent clashes between pro-democracy protesters and police regularly broke out on its busy streets, Hong Kong has been color-coded: The “yellow camp” is pro-democracy and anti-government, and the “blue camp” supports the establishment, the police, and Beijing.

There is thus also a “yellow economy.” More and more small shops and eateries publicly endorsed the anti-government movement; phone apps and maps began to label them for consumers who wanted to frequent them.

Meanwhile, there were calls to boycott “blue” enterprises and “red” capital from mainland China — which are mostly big, pro-government corporations — to break their market dominance. Some “blue shops” were vandalized. They included Starbucks in Hong Kong — operated by a local catering company — after the daughter of the company’s founder criticized the protesters and defended the police.

While Law sympathizes with those taking part in violent protests to pressure the Hong Kong administration, she said she never took part.

Law, who works in a film-production company, said she joined peaceful, authorized rallies whenever she could. She learned first-aid skills so she could help if anyone got hurt during protests. And she collected money to buy supplies, including protective gear and food, for “brothers and sisters on the front line” who fight the police.

Street protests have quieted since the global coronavirus outbreak in January. Law said she seldom eats out now, but she still makes sure she “buys yellow and eats yellow.” “I rely on phone apps to look for ‘yellow restaurants,’ and I try my best not to buy anything made in China, because I want to find out whether I can avoid Chinese products altogether,” Law said, jokingly adding that one thing she could not boycott was tap water, which Hong Kong imports from the mainland Dongjiang River.

The protests began with a murder committed by a Hong Kong man in Taiwan.

In February 2018, Chan Tong-kai went on vacation in Taipei with his pregnant girlfriend. But he returned alone. His girlfriend’s body was found in a pink suitcase in the grass near a Taipei train station.

Chan confessed to the murder, but since Hong Kong’s jurisdiction doesn’t cover crimes committed outside the territory, local police could charge him only with offenses relating to his use of the dead woman’s credit card. He also could not be extradited to Taiwan to face trial, owing to the lack of a mutual-legal-assistance channel between the two places.

The administration of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam therefore drafted an extradition bill in February of last year that would have allowed the government to surrender fugitives to any places lacking an extradition agreement with Hong Kong, including Taiwan and mainland China.

Academics, politicians, activists, and average citizens all expressed worries that this bill threatened the former British colony’s civil liberties, still protected partly by its common-law jurisdiction and independent courts. There were fears that authorities would surrender political activists to the mainland, where human rights and fair legal proceedings are not guaranteed.

More than 1 million people took to the streets last June to protest the bill, but the government insisted it was necessary to plug a “legal loophole.”

Another peaceful mass rally, with more than 2 million people, was held two weeks later. But violence was escalating. Protesters who believed that non-coercive means no longer worked considered more radical actions.

In the ensuing months, radical protesters donned gas masks, goggles, and helmets, and wore all black. They built roadblocks and threw bricks and gasoline bombs at police officers, who responded with batons, tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and live rounds.

Hundreds of masked protesters occupied the legislature on July 2, the day after the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. This forced Lam to announce the bill’s indefinite suspension. “The bill is dead,” she said, stopping short of formally withdrawing it.

In September, the extradition bill was finally formally withdrawn, but protesters said this was too little, too late — the administration should be held accountable for its poor response, and an independent probe should be held into alleged police brutality against protesters. People also demanded amnesty for the thousands arrested during protests and universal suffrage. The chief executive is now selected by a 1,200-member “election committee,” who are in turn elected or nominated by around 250,000 people from mostly pro-government or pro-business sectors, but the protesters demanded one-person, one-vote for all citizens.

The Hong Kong administration ignored these demands. Unrest continued, as did escalation.

On October 1, during celebrations of the 70th year of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, a police officer fired a live round into the chest of an 18-year-old Hong Kong protester at close range, leaving him critically injured, though he survived. Days later, another officer shot a 14-year-old in the thigh.

Around the same time, voters made their stance clear. In November, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in local council elections, historically dominated by pro-establishment members. This electoral success and the rise of the yellow economy were due partly to the “leaderless” nature of the anti-government movement, which stood in stark contrast with the ultimate failure of the last major anti-government protest, the leader-centric 2014 Umbrella Movement.

“They learned from the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement,” explains Wilson Wong, an associate professor of government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If there are some major leaders, the movement itself can easily be suppressed by the government if it targets and arrests those leaders.”

Protesters have overcome the limitations of being leaderless by using social media and chat groups to organize major protests, including airport demonstrations that forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, as well as spontaneous street protests.

Anonymous protesters planned and discussed their strategies on chat groups and online forums, and others turned up at the agreed times and locations. Drawing on late martial-arts star Bruce Lee’s famous quote, protesters adopted the mantra of being “formless, shapeless, like water” — providing one another with live updates on police action, and playing cat-and-mouse with police officers by moving quickly from one spot to another.

Professor Wong adds that using consumer power for political purposes is a new tactic in the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong: “The yellow economy is also leaderless in the sense that there is no central authority to govern or authenticate it. . . . [The yellow-economy campaign] starts with small business because it is easy, fast, and cheap to do.”

One such small businesses is a traditional grocery store inside a wet market at a public-housing estate. It’s a family business managed by Ting, 32, a staunch supporter of the protesters. Bottles and jars of sauces and condiments line one wall of the shop. A glass cabinet on another wall stores over-the-counter medicine. Dried seafood is on display at the shop’s far side. Near the entrance are three baskets of eggs. One can also buy Chinese herbs, baby formula, diapers, and cigarettes.

Ting donated part of the shop’s profits to support young protesters who are facing hardships, including prosecution and unemployment. She sold face masks at a discount to student protesters and gave away first-aid kits. She is also very vocal on her shop’s Facebook page, promoting products with hashtags including “Hong Kongers fight on,” “against extradition to China,” “F*** you Carrie Lam,” and “F*** you rogue police.”

“My parents think business should not be linked to politics. So I have to do it quietly. I blocked their Facebook,” she says. Ting, who in order to avoid retaliation did not give her full name, said that openly backing the movement had affected business. “There are so many ‘useless old people’ [a common description of older people who disapprove of the protests] in the housing estate, of course business is affected. Luckily I have an online shop. Many customers with a conscience still buy from us.

“Conscience is something the government and the police don’t have,” Ting continues. “We cannot count on them, so we have to help ourselves.”

Yellow shops such as Ting’s also contribute to the movement by other means. They plaster their walls with colorful Post-it notes that encourage the protesters. They provide free meals, jobs, or vocational training to protesters who face prosecution. And they participate in strikes.

Still, skeptics say the yellow economy will not shift the fundamental balance of power and wealth, as big business dominates industries such as the property market, tourism, and logistics. The minister overseeing Hong Kong’s commerce and economic development, Edward Yau, has dismissed the yellow economic circle as an unsustainable fad. Tommy Cheung, a member of the executive council — the body of advisers to the chief executive — and the representative of the catering sector in the Legislative Council, has called supporters of the yellow economy “rioters” and “terrorists,” pointing to vandalism of blue shops.

Professor Wong says, however, that while the yellow economy is small, it will likely continue to grow. “There are signs that [it] is spreading to other sectors and big companies such as HKTV Mall [an online shopping platform] and the banking sector — people are canceling accounts from Chinese banks and opening accounts in U.S. and foreign banks,” says Wong. “It would take more than consumer choices in order to break up the monopolies in Hong Kong created by government–business collusion, and changes in policies and laws are needed to reverse this,” he adds.

Den Law is optimistic. “A single spark could set a prairie on fire. I wish to see changes, although I cannot predict what forms they will take. It’s like believing in God, and believing that God will destroy the Chinese Communist Party. I believe, therefore I can see hopes. It’s not the other way around.”

Mag Szeto is a resident of Hong Kong writing under a pseudonym.

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