Consumer activism in Hong Kong and the dilemma of businesses

When shopping is not feeding capitalism but the only way of fighting for freedom

How can you express your view when putting a flag with the slogan “Reclaim Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” on your motorcycle costs 9 years in prison? This is what a typical Hong Kong citizen is struggling with every day.

Since 2019, the world has witnessed a big democratic social movement in Hong Kong as the Hong Kong government pushed forward its new Extradition Bill. Fast forward to 2021 and the National Security Law enacted in 2020 by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China has been in place for a year. The National Security Law changed the life of many citizens. Not only have pro-democratic media, activists, and politicians been raided and charged under the new law but also normal citizens such as students, business owners (including owners of childrenswear and grocery shops), and speech therapists, have ​​faced unreasonable suppression or were arrested for their speech, acts, and publications. Under such circumstances, the room for freedom of speech through any kind of publication or protest has been repressed. Instead, citizens are now expressing their support for the democratic movement by changing the way they spend money.

For citizens in Hong Kong controlling the way they spend their money became perhaps the only legal and safe way to campaign and to show sympathy towards those they believed were unfairly repressed and targeted by the government. Mike Lam, the founder of chain grocery stores AbouThai, has been charged under the National Security Law as he has been vocal in supporting the democratic movement. He can only be bailed out by HKD1 million (~GBP 100,000). In early 2021, his stores were believed to be targeted by the Customs Department regarding mislabelling issues, whilst his competitors, despite their own mislabelling issues, have not been charged. Citizens queued outside of AbouThai for over an hour to shop, aiming to empty their shelves in order to support Mike Lam and his business. The enthusiasm caused many products to go out of stock but shoppers decided to go back another day. Some of them bought things they do not need in order to show their support.

Photo shared via Wikimedia Commons

Early on in the democratic movement in 2019, citizens started the idea of the “yellow economy”, in order to support “yellow businesses” that are on the democratic side, and tried to avoid visiting businesses that supported the Extradition Bill or the Hong Kong government – the so-called “blue businesses”. This resulted in many pro-government and pro-Chinese Communist Party politicians and columnists attacking such consumer activism saying the movement was hilarious and naive. Some individuals created maps, mobile apps, and blogs to promote “yellow businesses”  – ranging from restaurants and cafes, to shops selling garments, fruit and personal care products – that supported the social movement and activists. Some social media groups also only included reviews for “yellow businesses” in order to increase their exposure, while also trying to point out any “blue” ones that consumers can avoid.

Shah et al (2007) described the act of “selecting among products and producers based on social, political, or ethical considerations” as political consumerism and as ordinary citizens integrating social movements into their daily practices. Consumers who engage in such behaviours seek to hold companies and governments responsible for various impacts of business practice on individuals, society, and the environment. The Hong Kong “yellow economy” movement can be seen as the reaction to a contemporary democratic crisis undertaken by autonomous individuals in the private realm via consumption.

Two restaurant groups, Maxims and Fulum, associated with pro-government politics (aka “blue businesses”) have seen a fall in their profits. Maxims later admitted their difficulty in recruiting staff. “Blue businesses” may not face political oppression unlike “yellow businesses”  but both sides have been facing forces from the opposite side (yellow citizens and blue citizens). Unlike their “yellow” counterparts, “blue” artists and influencers may not have to face political oppression and still have air time in the mainstream media; some who weren’t that famous lost their sponsors and jobs as businesses did not want to face backlash from “yellow” shoppers. This ‘backfiring’ may in the future lead other businesses and individuals to make clear their standing in some social movements or to stay silent.

The Hong Kong “yellow economy” was similar to the Western phenomenon of political consumerism (regarding human rights and ethical aspects) yet is different due to being more politically motivated to express disagreement with the government. The “yellow economy” campaign aims to bring about political and social change by holding companies accountable in their political standings and by boycotting businesses that do not stand by democratic values and supporting businesses that do. For example, the campaign hopes to help more “yellow businesses” survive in this unprecedented time (of both the social movement and COVID-19) and to force “blue businesses” to change or they will suffer. Their vigorous campaigning and selection of products and services (as mentioned above) takes political consumerism to another level under the repressive environment. Another difference is that the faceless and leaderless characteristics of the 2019 social movement can also be found in this “yellow economy” movement. Instead of having organisations and lobby groups that campaign for a change, the updating of business information about “yellow businesses”, updating the shop list and signposting shoppers, were heavily reliant on the input of individuals.

Consumers who are aware of their power in making changes are more likely to expand the influence they have on social issues in the future. Whilst businesses may actually gain revenues or at least a positive reputation by supporting some social movements such as Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ campaigns and may not suffer any harm from doing so. It would be hard to tell how businesses will respond to consumer activism in the future when it is hard to judge whether the gain will justify the cost – especially when ethical supply chain issues can turn into a political issue and backfire (e.g. H&M was boycotted by Chinese consumers over the Xinjiang cotton issue). If our societies face more political crises and become more divided, will businesses and individuals have to bear consequences like being boycotted, and how will businesses respond and decide their standing? And if staying silent or neutral will also result in harm to business, what are the choices that businesses will make? The “yellow economy” in Hong Kong provides some clues that campaigners and businesses can learn from.

Tomorrow: in the next blog in the series Georgette Fernandez Laris considers ​​the silent contestation of a digital revolution in payments.

This is the fourth part of a new blog series by members of SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network that is exploring how different types and forms of social contestation are shaping the global economy. Read all of the blogs in the series so far here.