Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?
Hong Kong’s Political Experiment With Consumer Sovereignty Yields Mixed Results.
The idea of consumer sovereignty is an intuitive one. The market operates as a back-and-forth between consumers and producers, with the former determining which of the latter can survive into the next business cycle. Inherent in the simple act of buying are the varied preferences of the vast and imposing group of customers that shape the evolution of equally vast and varied industries. Hong Kong, roiled by political turbulence for over a year now, has seen political considerations spilling over to economic ones; with consumers across the political spectrum siloing themselves into their respective “economic circles” – blue for pro-establishment and yellow against – this separation probably remains one of the city’s few bipartisan agreements recently. However, what was once a political aspiration for free market validation has seen scarce carryover from the business sector into political discourse; in fact, it has sometimes backfired.
The consumer-led movement originated shortly after an employee from Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast-food chain, mocked local police officers in a Facebook advertisement for removing posters and slogans from the city’s Lennon Wall, a mosaic wall that was created during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and whose expressed function was to celebrate democratic liberties such as free speech through artistic expression. The employee was swiftly condemned and fired by the fast-food chain, an act that spurred on the growing boycott against businesses that opposed the ongoing protests at the time. “Yellow” businesses, usually local, quickly took to social media to announce their support for the protestors; “blue” businesses, usually mainland and multinational corporations, countered just as fast by condemning any action that they deemed inimical to stable business and by supporting local law enforcement against rioters. Thus, a catalogue of who’s-who started to emerge.
"The pandemic tilted the playing field"
The pandemic tilted the playing field. Though the government had doled out relief packages to aid flailing businesses during the period, they barely helped in covering basic rent and operating costs during the partial lockdowns; the stringent social distancing measures in a city notorious for its exorbitant property prices and land scarcity had only exacerbated conditions for businesses. Add onto all that the toxic political climate where discourse often degenerates into thuggish intimidation, which is sometimes visited upon struggling restauranteurs, and it becomes only a matter of time before businesses go under, or worse, defect to the more lucrative side. One such instance occurred when Lung Mun Café, a famous spot known more for its ‘yellow’ political leanings than its food, announced at the end of June it would no longer operate exclusively within the yellow economic circle, inviting a barrage of comments lambasting the establishment as being an opportunist and for putting economic incentives above what some consider to be essential liberties. Though there were comments that were more understanding towards the plight of struggling local businesses, they were few and far between.
‘Blue’ businesses have remained largely unscathed. However, this has less to do with the genuine political leanings of local consumers than it has with the financial resources at these corporate groups’ disposal due to government support. The city’s property market has largely been insulated from the local economy largely due to real estate developers catering to mainland business interests over domestic ones; a case in point is the fact that local apartment prices haven’t budged one iota during the Sino-American trade war, throughout the political protests of last year, and even during the ongoing pandemic at the time of writing. Given the franchises under their belt, corporations that enjoy the backing of the state have little to be insecure about: it’s hardly fair to yellow cafés when Starbucks comes out as blue.
With odds this unfair, some youths have decided to vote with their feet instead of voting with their wallets: applications to schools in Taiwan increased by 69 percent, while British and Australian schools were up by 50. Consumers are still kings, but perhaps now exiled ones.
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