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Hong Kong vs. Goliath

With Canto-pop star Denise Ho and bookseller-turned-whistleblower Lam Wing-Kee, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is putting the old tactic of boycotts to new use

By Elaine Yu and Jeffrey Wasserstrom

On Sunday June 19, Hong Kong-based musician Denise Ho sang for her fans at a special concert on Po Hing Fong, a street in the upscale, artsy Hong Kong neighborhood “PoHo.” At the same time and in the same place, a bigger show sponsored by the French-owned international brand Lancôme was supposed to take place, but it didn’t—the cosmetic maker got cold feet about being involved in anything associated with the bleached-haired controversial Canto-pop star. The ersatz concert had an upbeat, relaxed feel despite all the drama that unfolded earlier. Ho’s fans, most of them supporters of her pro-democracy stance rare for a local celebrity, packed the the streets of PoHo, where art galleries and artisanal shops dot the steep-sloped, gentrified alleys.

Ho’s concert was one of a pair of events that took place between two politically charged dates that are commemorated without fail each year in Hong Kong: the anniversary of the June 4 massacre of 1989, and today, July 1, which marks the date of the 1997 Handover that made Hong Kong a specially administered part of the People’s Republic of China. Five days before Ho’s concert, missing Hong Kong bookseller and publisher Lam Wing-kee returned to Hong Kong with a surprising story of his fate. Unexpected and very different in nature, these developments are linked together by one important thing, which also ties them to the protests of 2012 and 2014 that made Joshua Wong first locally and then globally famous: they are both stirring tales of underdogs facing off against powerful foes—updated, secular, Asia-set variations on the Biblical story of David versus Goliath.


A Tale of Two Underdogs

Denise Ho is a popular singer-songwriter, a high-profile LGBT activist, and an award-winning actress. She is also a familiar face in her native Hong Kong, due partly to the many billboards that use it to advertise brands such as Levi’s “Roadwear” collection and, until being dropped recently by the company, Listerine’s mouthwash products. She was a vocal supporter of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and met the Dalai Lama on her last birthday—two things that have made her unpopular with the Chinese Communist Party. Ho was subsequently banned from performing on the mainland and international businesses have had to weigh the pros and cons of being linked to her in a new light.



Ho’s dizzyingly diverse résumé goes on, as it now includes a boycott symbol. After an official Beijing tabloid slammed Lancôme for associating themselves with the singer and suggested Chinese could show their patriotism by shunning the company’s products, the company then backed out of the concert. Ho was quick to criticize the French company’s decision to call off the multi-act Hong Kong gig that was to include her, calling it an act of “commercial self-censorship.” (China became parent company L’Oréal’s second biggest market last year.)

One response to what some dubbed Lancôme’s “kowtowing” to Beijing was a call to boycott the now-back-in-Beijing’s-good-graces cosmetic giant. But despite some expressions of support for the boycott inside Hong Kong and elsewhere (including in France, L’Oreal’s home country, where a pro-boycott petition circulated), many in Hong Kong remained uninterested or simply were not ready to get behind the singer. Even some of the small businesses that were cross-promoted at the June 19 concert tried to distance themselves from Ho-the-political-symbol while working with Ho-the-entertainer. They denied that they endorsed her positions and said they took part only for the good publicity the famous performer could bring to the neighborhood.



Ho’s emergence as an unexpected underdog standing up to a Beijing government whose vast security apparatus and ever-growing global economic clout give it a Goliath-like stature made some headlines, but not as many as Lam Wing-kee did with an impromptu press conference he held right between the contentious anniversaries.

Lam, a bookseller-turned-whistleblower who went missing in October last year, made a stunning set of revelations, claiming that he had been kidnapped and detained in China, not gone there willingly, as the mainland press has insisted. He offered a chilling account of being abducted that his former colleagues and a woman identifying as his girlfriend quickly disputed (some of them in an “exclusive” interview with the pro-Beijing Sing Tao Daily).



Among the five employees connected to publisher Mighty Current Media and its bookshop Causeway Bay Books, which specialize in salacious and lightly sourced titles about China’s ruling elite, Lam has so far been the only one to have spoken critically about the quintet’s mysterious individual disappearances into detention across the Chinese border. He is also the only one of the five to claim that all televised confessions by members of the group were, as many international journalists have assumed all along, scripted and coerced.



Lam was due to lead the July 1 pro-democracy march at this year’s handover anniversary. But he decided to pull out after having perceived “serious threats” to his personal safety. Still, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets—though the turnout wasn’t considered high compared to that of previous years.


Banned Books and Beauty Cream

Whether the objects involved are behind-the-scenes books or cosmetics, it seems politicized products with direct or indirect ties to Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy are becoming particularly freighted with meaning just now. This year’s major anniversaries lack obvious oomph—in contrast to the quarter-century anniversary of the June 4 massacre of 2014 and the 20th of the handover coming up in 2017—and the pro-democracy movement appears to have become somewhat divided and disoriented, with the proliferation of voices urging everything from political reform to independence often seeming more frustratingly fragmented than constructively diverse. And yet, these products and the debates swirling around them have ensured that 2016 will be remembered as a significant one in the history of Hong Kong’s relationship to the mainland. They also come on the heels of two events involving the arts earlier this year that were similarly revealing of tensions within the city and anxieties over its future.

These involved an art installation and a film. Appearing on the façade of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, a nine-minute light installation—in which an animated, random number blinked for a few moment in the end—began as what seemed and perhaps was an apolitical work associated with time. Only later, a day after the installation’s debut, did its subversive creators reveal what that number represented—a countdown by the second to July 1, 2047, to convey that time was running out for Hong Kong. (Hong Kong is to be fully integrated with China when its “one country, two systems” arrangement with Beijing is set to expire on July 1st, 2047.) The film, by contrast, was neither ambitious in meaning nor ever seen as apolitical. Titled “Ten Years,” it was comprised of five segments, in each of which a local director imagined, darkly, what Hong Kong would be like a decade hence. When it was nominated for a Hong Kong film award in the spring, the mainland media, predicting that it would win prizes (they were right), reversed its plans to broadcast the awards show live.

For the historically minded, the back and forth boycotts linked to Denise Ho’s Lancôme face-off, while they made headlines only briefly, are at least as interesting as any of the 2016 events that have gotten more intense and sustained coverage. The boycott pushing against Beijing’s attacks on Ho highlights a broad question that confronts many social movements: What kind of weapons of the weak can have purchase against the economically powerful? It also sparks a more local question for Hong Kong: How can acts of resistance gain traction and any kind of global support in light of a growth surge that has turned China from an impoverished David into a Goliath-like juggernaut that international governments and companies often feel worried about offending? When we talk about the power of ordinary people and consumers, how can the island city’s population of 7.2 million compete with the mainland’s 1.4 billion?


Underdogs Past, Underdogs Present

It may seem strange to invoke an Old Testament story when referring to a conflict involving the avowedly atheistic Communist Party, but it is fitting for two reasons. First, Mao Zedong and his successors have shown a great fondness for using just these sorts of tales to bolster their legitimacy. Mainland youths grow up reading stories about and watching films that present revolutionaries of old boldly defying the odds and taking on adversaries who are much better armed, much better funded, or both—and managing to score significant victories or at least hold their ground surprisingly well.

The May 4th Movement of 1919, which included an anti-Japanese boycott, and the May 30th Movement of 1925, during which the public was told to refrain from buying both British and Japanese goods, are both narrated this way, as is a 1905 struggle involving a boycott of American products that was launched to combat discriminatory U.S. immigration policies. So, too, are the Long March and the Communist defeat of the Nationalists in 1949. In each case, the tale is told of seemingly outmatched patriots, intent on protecting their community and making creative use of weapons of the weak, from general strikes to guerrilla warfare, standing their ground and sometimes gaining stunning victories over seemingly all-powerful imperialist or autocratic opponents.


From Hong Kong's 2014 Umbrella Movement sit-ins. Photo by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
From Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement sit-ins. Photo by Jeffrey Wasserstrom


One reason Hong Kong protests are so displeasing to the authorities in Beijing is that, like some mainland acts of resistance, they invert this Maoist mythology and put the old tactic of boycotts to new use: it is those who challenge the Communist Party, not support it, who seem to most closely resemble the David-like figures celebrated in mainland history books. It is Beijing that is cast as autocratic and in a sense imperialistic, exerting control over Hong Kong via puppets, and even, in the case of the disappearing booksellers, literally reaching into the territory with nefarious goals. In addition, some of the tactics that Hong Kong opponents of Beijing have used, from Umbrella Movement mass sit-ins to the proposed L’Oreal boycott, are the exact same ones that heroes whose exploits are celebrated on the mainland employed before 1949.

The Hong Kong underdog who remains best known beyond the city itself remains Joshua Wong. A Christian, he has told interviewers that his parents chose his first name with an Old Testament tale of a bold resister in mind, albeit one associated with wall shattering trumpets rather than a slingshot. In addition, though this youthful 19-year-old activist is associated now with the leading role he played in 2014’s Umbrella Movement, he first rose to prominence via a 2012 fight linked to textbooks. In that earlier struggle, Wong joined with fellow teenagers, their teachers, and other sympathetic elders, to combat the importation into Hong Kong of mainland style patriotic education.


19-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who played a major role in the 2015 Umbrella Movement protests. Photo courtesy Pacific Chillino/Flickr
19-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who played a major role in the 2015 Umbrella Movement protests. Photo courtesy Pacific Chillino/Flickr


The textbooks in question, which 2012’s protesters were determined to keep out of Hong Kong schools, leave out all mention of the 1989 Tank Man, one of the signature underdog figures of the last century. The underdogs they do feature, by contrast, are pro-Communist ones, like the People’s Liberation Army fighters credited with miraculously driving Chiang Kai-shek’s better armed, American-funded Nationalists into exile. Needless to say, while Hong Kong students can be told in classes, at least for now, about the bold, if only sometimes successful, efforts by David-figures like Joshua Wong and Denise Ho to stand up to the might of Beijing, there is no place for positive discussion of them in mainland schools or mainland media.


Politicized Products

From perfumes to cigarettes, China’s advertising and consumer culture that flourished early last century was married to patriotism. Boycotts became an enduring protest tradition. “Enemy products”—whether from America in 1905, Japan in 1919, and sometimes other countries or a mix of nations—were rejected, and national, homegrown ones were championed. Efforts to strengthen and unify a nation crippled by foreign powers were projected onto commodities that ordinary people could access. While patriotism remains a potent force in China, the nation’s embrace of consumerism today has generally moved away from politics. On the other hand, Hong Kong, a long-standing shopping destination, is beginning to grapple with an increasingly politicized material culture.

It seems in this altered landscape that there is little left to stay neutral about and few referent points stay fixed for long. You need to adjust continually in a setting where Hong Kongers can call for a boycott of a French beauty brand right after the same company was targeted by a mainland media organ whose editors saw in its face cream a new “enemy product” to attack. (That publication now has recordings by Lady Gaga in its sites after the American superstar met the Dalai Lama at a panel about kindness and compassion.) In this era of battling boycotts, many categories of the past get twisted around. In the tiny and geopolitically sensitive economy of Hong Kong, for example, referring to “the Left” evokes images of a top-down, Leninist-style operation rather than of class struggle and progressive politics. We also get used to seeing ordinary residents and consumers rallying to new kinds of songs, from Umbrella Movement anthems to Denise Ho hits, and gathering on newly resonant dates, such as July 1, to battle a new kind of Goliath. Yet, they may continue to find value in using the same weapons of the weak as earlier generations of David-like Chinese figures, who battled bullies associated with capitals much further away than Beijing.