The Yellow economy and the frontline
Updated: May 7, 2020
The people of Hong Kong (HK) are locked in a battle with a tyrannical HK government that puts the wishes of the CCP before the needs and aspirations of the SAR’s citizens. Like soldiers in the trenches, HK protesters are digging in for the long haul against HK’s government. Realising they can punish businesses deemed hostile to their pro-democracy cause, those who 'stand with HK' have now expanded their struggle from the streets to their wallets. They have weaponised their spending power in a new response to the conflict that utilises their strength in numbers, and financial muscle. As you will find out here, this goes much further than opening a business selling the necessary hardware to equip protesters heading to the frontlines of this battle.
Rather than co-existing as a self-governing autonomous region of China, HK is being forcibly assimilated through actions that make the “One country, two systems” model nothing more than window-dressing. This battle began as massive protests against legislation that would have given HK Government the power to extradite people across the border to mainland China and elsewhere to face trial. However, it united citizens around much broader issues of governance.
UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 20.3 (quote - bold format added):
"The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."
In District Council elections held on 24 November 2019, the only universal and equal suffrage elections in HK, the pro-democracy camp achieved its biggest landslide victory in the history of HK, seizing control of 17 of the 18 District Councils and tripling their seats from around 124 to about 388.
With the will of the people expressed in the 2019 District Council elections the HK Government must follow the will of the people. We have now entered a new phase of the protest movement "acting according to the will of the HK people."
After many months of ongoing protest action, the antagonism between the protest movement and the HK Government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam (CE), and other players in the conflict (HK Police Force, and the CCP) seems to have reached a stalemate.
The CE is being ordered by Beijing authorities to address livelihood issues in a prompt manner and to bring an end to embarrassing, destabilising protests (see our blog on how the CCP uses coercion to get its way). The Police, in support of the CE are using every strategy and tactic it can to suppress protests by limiting freedom of speech. Both Beijing and the CE have kept avoiding the elephant in the room! Those who still commit themselves to join the rallies and protests are insistent that the CE should respond favourably to the ‘5 demands’ they have listed, and open meaningful dialogue with them.
The protesters are motivated, by an increased awareness of the CCP’s intervention in affairs of the SAR and the continuing denial of democratic freedoms and human rights guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They want the autonomy that the CCP misinterprets as calls for separatism and independence (see our blog on CCP and autonomy). They are ever more incensed by the ‘excessive force’ and ‘lawlessness’ of the HK Police Force (HKPF), by the interference in the work of educators, media and health professionals, by the various threats, intimidation and actual physical violence that has cloaked the SAR (see our blogs "Havoc in the hospitals" and "Education in the frontline"). It also upsets them that the only conciliatory gestures the HKPF, the CE and other officials seem prepared to offer are denials, rejections, half-truths, irrational or illogical excuses, twisted and selective versions of events, or outright lies.
It is with this backdrop for the theatre of battle that protesters have enacted what they term "The Yellow Economy" (YE). The idea of setting up the YE or 'yellow circle' originated from a protest slogan – “Refurbish the black, embellish the red, boycott the blue, support the yellow shops” – that appeared after white-shirted gangsters used bamboo sticks to beat up protesters who were on their way home in the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21. Intended partly as revenge against those businesses supporting the perceived enemy, and partly as an offensive tactic to further unsettle those holding the strings of power, the idea is relatively simple. The protesters ask "Is your business friend or foe?" Having identified those businesses which support the aims of the protest movement (yellow ribbon businesses), the protesters honour them by switching their spending away from from those which are opposed to the pro-democracy movement, that support the CCP and the CE.
It's something like the "Pink capitalism", or the "Pink Money" of the LGBT movement that began to flourish in the 1990s, when discrimination against gay people diminished and it was recognised that those without children had greater spending power. Even in mainland China the pink economy is leading the battle for LGBT rights. The YE reflects the fact that like "buying green" or "fair trade", shopping and spending is no longer just about fulfilling basic demands but is also about promoting particular values, concepts, and ideas behind goods and services. In HK organisers have put the YE on the map, so to speak, by screening and recruiting potential yellow businesses, then setting up internet and smartphone apps to drive spending in the right direction.
Some YE businesses are more creative in their marketing strategy, not just depending on Lennon Walls or protest art work on display in their premises. Several have offered students in protest hotspots generous discounts, and at least one cafe made a name for itself by dishing out free meals to protesters. Another cafe came up with a specially branded meal to commemorate blue ribbon HK legislator Junius Ho losing his role in the November 2019 District Council election. In return protesters like the YE because they feel they are rewarding businesses for their loyalty.
Owners of independent YE business don't feel they have to apologise or offer sympathy to the 'Blue businesses' (BB) that have lost their customers. Some BB have won customers by supporting the HK police and declaring their affiliation. A fair proportion of the YE businesses are small scale restaurants and food outlets who are very keen to boost their income in HK's current very tough business climate, especially in the tourism and retail sectors. Running any business has its inherent risks: troublesome suppliers, greedy landlords, and unreliable staff are just three of the potential pitfalls. Even before the protests began in June 1999 it was common to see restaurants in HK open and close without much warning. While businesses are finding it tough and the civil unrest in HK continues, most workers say that their democratic freedom is more important than their employer's profit.
Joining the YE in HK has its risks, however, as some shops have become targets of vandalism, in the same way that BB were targeted by protesters. Seven months into the protests, while some businesses have ceased operation, new ones have opened and some have downsized or moved their premises. Jewellery chainstore Chow Tai Fook, for example, has opted to close 20% of its many HK stores as the demand from its Mainland customer base has dropped away. Even before the anti-government protests began in June 2019 many traditional storefront business were suffering due to competition and the increase in online consumer spending.
Kay Lam, a political analyst on Radio Free Asia explained that the YE circle challenges
the powerful ‘red economic circle’ set up by the CCP that compels businessmen and entertainment artists to express their loyalty to Beijing or else face censorship. People in HK are choosing to actively boycott or 'buycott' pro-Beijing businesses, and we have witnessed attacks on specific banks, traders and restaurants deemed antagonistic for various reasons. In Taiwan, as in HK, the YE move is seen as a defense of the SAR's autonomy. The YE businesses have championed the pro-democracy cause by supporting workers taking strike action, donated food, cash and equipment to protesters, sold pro-democracy merchandise, offered vocational training, and hired staff who have lost their job elsewhere.
Establishing the YE is a strategy that has drawn mixed reactions. Edward Yau Tang-wah, the secretary for commerce and economic development in the Lam government questioned the sustainability of the YE model, warning those involved that the campaign would have difficulties being implemented and was counter to the HK free market business model. However, his view was contradicted by an economist from the University of Hong Kong who said that the YE might not disappear even if the ongoing unrest is resolved.
Showing how it panders to its predominantly mainland xenophobic readership, the China Daily absurdly claimed that most YE businesses were 'foreign-funded'. There is no data to support such a claim, thought it is apparent that there are business operations in HK bankrolled by the RED economic circle. Still, the Daily said that since HK was dependent on water, gas, and electricity and food from the Mainland, its future was in its integration into the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area development strategy devised by the Beijing government. Others predict that even in that scenario, it's either possible or likely that HK could have an important financial role for the hinterland beyond the SAR.
Countering the economic effects of the seven months of civic unrest, the HK government drew praise from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for its efforts in financially supporting local businesses affected by protests. However, in other gloomy financial news, in January 2020 the HK government's "white elephant" theme park known as "Ocean Park" made a request for no less than HK$10.6 billion to help pay debt accrued over several years, improve its cash flow problem, and cover plans to redevelop the failing tourist attraction [see our blog on HK's numerous White Elephant projects]. Any government handouts given to assist individual citizens during the SAR's current economic recession may unintentionally be redirected towards the YE.
Lately there is some evidence that the pro-democracy movement in HK has been an inspiration for protest movements elsewhere. It's gratifying that many around the globe have chosen to 'Stand with HK', bringing more international attention and pressure to the behaviour of the CCP, the Beijing and HK governments, Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping. The YE idea has unexpectedly taken root in Canada where there are many immigrants from both HK and Mainland China. Also, timed perfectly for Chinese New Year in HK, a locally made comedic movie titled "Grand Grandmaster" that deals with the YE topic is set to be released. Whether that movie will fare as well as the rest of the YE in 2020, the year of the Rat, we will have to wait and see. Nevertheless, the latest strategy of the protest movement looks set to stay as an unambiguous sign of people power.
Further reading: Columnist, TV host, Michael Chugani says "Yellow economy equals free choice" EJINSIGHT, 7 May 2020.