HONG KONG – As a highly materialistic society with a taste for mindless consumerism, Hong Kong has recently found itself swept by a unique wave of conscious consumption, whereby citizens who support the pro-democracy movement make an effort to patronize businesses siding with the anti-government protesters and ditch those who are against it.
As the months-long movement continues to rage on, activists and their supporters are looking at building up a “yellow economic circle” – yellow as in “yellow ribbon,” the symbol for being pro-democracy and pro-protesters, as opposed to “blue ribbon,” which represents the pro-government and pro-police lot.
The idea is that businesses supportive of pro-democracy protests, which began in early June because of a controversial government bill on extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China, deserve like-minded consumers’ support; when more customers patronize them, they will become stronger and the yellow economic circle will get bigger in Hong Kong, whose economy has for the past two decades been driven largely by businesses that are pro-China.
This week, the advertising sector staged a five-day strike and launched plans to help small-sized pro-protest businesses to promote themselves. And as Hongkongers have a penchant for dining out, the restaurant sector has become the main realm where this politically-driven consumption behavior manifests itself. Several mobile apps have been created to guide diners where to eat.
The popular “WhatsGap” app, for example, features maps illustrating the locations of yellow and blue ribbon restaurants, complete with information provided by users as proof of the restaurants’ political stance. Restaurant waiters heard calling protesters “cockroaches,” for instance, will land the restaurant in the blue-ribbon category.
“Now I often check these apps before I eat out. I think restaurants that make it clear they support the movement should be rewarded for their courage. We should help each other out,” an activist in his 20s, who preferred to be identified as Tommy, told EFE during a recent protest.
This new consumption trend, which reflects how the protest movement has sharply divided Hong Kong into the yellow and blue ribbon dichotomy, effectively provides an outlet for pro-protest citizens in the semi-autonomous Chinese city to express their desire for greater democracy, and their anger with their government, which has been suppressing the protests.
But to some extent, it seems the trend has also packed a punch economically, especially when the Asian financial hub’s tertiary industry has borne the brunt of the political and social unrest and the economy is slowing down – in the third quarter of 2019, the city’s GDP shrank 3.2 percent year-on-year.
In the Wellington area – located in the core business district of Central – a Japanese restaurant with a clear pro-protest position has emerged as one of the winners of the yellow economic circle movement, breaking even merely a few months after its inception.
Opened incidentally in June when the protest movement started, the small establishment is decorated with a plethora of post-it notes and handbills with pro-democracy messages.
In the summer, when protests were at their most intense, it stayed open until late and offered a special fried rice dish at merely HK$5 ($0.64), giving many young frontline protesters a much-needed energy boost after exhaustive battles with police.
“A restaurant surely has to offer good food and service, but I think having a conscience is of utmost importance in running a business. We try to do what we can in the movement,” co-founder Jonathan Chan told EFE.
“Because we support the movement, people who didn’t know us want to check out what we serve... That has sped up our growth. Having benefited [from the movement], we try to use our resources to help others so that this yellow economic circle can keep growing.”
With winners come losers. Some companies that are pro-Beijing or run by mainland Chinese capital are being boycotted by advocates for the yellow economic circle.
Radical protesters have gone so far as to vandalize and even set fire to shops of such companies in recent months, even though the notion of the yellow economic circle does not necessarily entail vandalism.
The victims include Starbucks, whose Hong Kong franchise is operated by the major restaurant chain Maxim’s Group. Annie Wu, the scion of the family who owns the group, has been highly critical of protesters and recently said Hong Kong should give up on two lost generations of young people who had been “brainwashed” to become anti-government and anti-China.
It is unclear how the balance sheets of these establishments have been affected as a result of being jilted by politically-conscious consumers, but activists like Tommy are adamant that they and their friends will never patronize them.
“Those who have said callous and even cruel things to protesters need to know there’s a price to pay for their callousness,” he said.
Some economists, however, are skeptical of the whole premise of the yellow economic circle.
Terence Chong, a professor of the Department of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told EFE: “This will prove a passing passion that won’t sustain. Economically, this idea doesn’t really make sense.”
“It’s hard to clearly define the political position of a restaurant,” Chong added. “Its owner may be yellow-ribbon, but some of its employees may be blue-ribbon. So by spending money on it, you are effectively helping the employees.”