How Hong Kong Protesters Show Which Businesses Are Friend or Foe

Brendon Hong
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty/Reuters

HONG KONG—Yellow shop, blue shop, red shop, black shop?

That isn’t the first line in a modern nursery rhyme. Rather, it outlines an act of resistance that the people of Hong Kong participate in every day.

Recognizing that the path to true self-governance is one that will take years, if not longer, Hongkongers are adopting small-scale actions so that the protest movement does not stall. Medical professionals have daily strikes during daylight hours. In the evenings, people meet at certain public squares or in shopping mall atriums so they have a constant, regular presence. At night, some yell out protest slogans through their apartment windows. 

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Street-level actions don’t have the seven-figure turnout like months ago, and are often more scattered throughout the city. There’s worry that Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, will invoke emergency powers and cancel the upcoming district elections, where pro-democracy candidates are expected to grab many new seats. So, Hongkongers have shifted tactics, and are, for now, voting with their wallets.

For the past few weeks, lists of businesses have been circulating in Hong Kong, each name carrying a color code that defines the stance of its proprietors and general outlook regarding the ongoing protests that have evolved into a movement to shake off the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in the city’s affairs.

Shops and brands that are “yellow”—the color of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014—are mostly local, and each in its own way supports those who wear black clothing, gas masks, and hard hats every weekend to translate city-wide discontent into street-level action. “Blue” businesses are those where you might find the staff wearing “I (heart) the police” T-shirts, as well as outspoken supporters of the establishment and Carrie Lam.

“Red” shops are affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party, while “black” shops—not to be confused with protester-black—are CCP fronts or belong to the Party through direct ownership or shell companies.

The lists serve as guidelines for consumption. Hongkongers are encouraged to spend their dollars at businesses like independent bookshops and certain eateries that are marked “yellow.” Restaurants that are “blue” have seen steep drops in footfalls in many districts because of the boycott. Starbucks is a chain that is often smashed up during large marches, because it is managed by local conglomerate Maxim’s Caterers; in September, Annie Wu, the daughter of Maxim’s founder, spoke before the United Nations Human Rights Council along with other tycoons, utilizing talking points from CCP propaganda to condemn the blackshirt protesters in her city.

Overtly Chinese businesses see the harshest attacks. A branch of Tong Ren Tang, a 350-year-old traditional Chinese medicine maker that was founded in Beijing, was set on fire on Sunday night. Throughout the month, Bank of China and China Construction Bank branches saw their ATMs torched in several neighborhoods in the city; some of these banks’ locations are now encased in steel walls to prevent protesters from forcing their way in.

The attacks on “blue,” “red,” and “black” locations have lasted for weeks in Hong Kong, and they remind us of scenes from when the blackshirts briefly seized the legislative building in July. There is chaos, but also discipline: No stealing, especially cash. Looting is forbidden.

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In fact, after the fire set at a store opened by Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone and consumer electronics company, was put out on Sunday night, one man who was found to be scavenging for new phones was apprehended and tied up by protesters, and then left on the street with a handwritten cardboard sign that read “thief.”

On some days, especially over the weekends, there’s a heavy dose of vigilantism on the streets in Hong Kong, yet support from the public remains high. A mid-October poll conducted by the Center for Communication and Public Opinion Survey at the Chinese University of Hong Kong indicates that more than 70 percent of people in the city believe that it is acceptable for protestors to use some level of force in the current conditions.

The yellow-blue dichotomy was originally meant to be a boycott campaign, and it quickly gained traction. (The “red” and “black” tags were added later.) After Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to implement a ban on masks, fewer people have been willing to hit the streets for marches than in the summer (though many still wear face masks during their commutes and regular, daily situations to signal their dissatisfaction). Boycotts of “blue” businesses were designed to be a mode of daily participation in the larger blackshirt movement, so that people would be mindful of channeling their disposable income toward proprietors who keep the welfare of the city in mind.

This act may be small, but it’s a constant reminder that the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest weapon in Hong Kong is one that is commercial, wielded by its tycoon proxies and shell companies that are swallowing up swathes of industries.

In mid-September, local pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily ran a report that Lam had met with more than 30 senior managers of Chinese state-owned enterprises, discussing the possibility of these companies taking more control of various business sectors in Hong Kong. Lam denied that was the case, saying the meeting was routine.

And yet the CCP has a history of using businesses to distort public discourse in Hong Kong. The most explicit example is the Party’s progress in monopolizing the city’s media and publishing industries. The CCP owns two newspapers in the city, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. The English-language broadsheet with the highest circulation in the city, the South China Morning Post, was bought in 2016 by Alibaba, which has become an e-commerce juggernaut with the blessing of Beijing. And as of four years ago, the Party’s liaison office in Hong Kong—its political representative in the city—enjoys around an 80 percent market share in book publishing, printing, distribution, and retail.

For individuals who refuse to compromise their principles, things can escalate quickly. In 2014, the once-liberal newspaper Ming Pao saw its chief editor nearly hacked to death by men armed with cleavers. It was widely believed that the assault was political motivated. On more than one occasion, the house of Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai was firebombed.

Will the boycott of non-“yellow” businesses work? Likely not—at least not if the goal is to remove Chinese capital from the port city. Hong Kong and mainland China’s economies are inseparable. Look hard enough at any set of books, and you’ll likely find a Chinese supplier, customer, or even investor that is linked to the business. (That’s not to say all money from mainland China flows from the Party, though some elements in the blackshirt movement do not make the distinction.) And, boycotts aside, should an individual’s opinions or political beliefs lead to the physical destruction of a business?

For now, those details are overlooked by many protesters. The blackshirt movement’s color-coded resistance is keeping the broader population engaged, asserting an acutely anti-CCP message in everyone’s minds at all times. In those terms, it has been extremely effective.

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