by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Public Domain

RECENT DEMONSTRATIONS in Hong Kong revolving around brands and products would seem to indicate part of future challenges faced by Hong Kong in the pursuit of greater autonomy. We can point to parallels between two events: Demonstrations by localists against a planned name change of the Pokemon character Pikachu by Nintendo and demonstrations against cosmetics brand Lancôme after canceling a concert featuring Denise Ho, who is known for her pro-democracy political stances. Though seemingly unrelated, both demonstrations share the same root cause, in which it is feared that countries seeking to do business with China may become willing to alienate their Hong Kong market.

In the case of the planned name change for the anime character Pikachu, what caused offense was that despite many residents of Hong Kong having grown up used to the Cantonese pronunciation of Pikachu, a change was planned by Nintendo in the characters used for “Pikachu” to bring the name of character in line with Mandarin as used in China. Though not significantly large, protest by localist groups Civic Passion and Lonely Media would see international coverage. Nevertheless, Nintendo has not backed away from the planned name change.

On the other hand, in the case of demonstrations against Lancôme, the cosmetics brand is seen as having bowed to Chinese pressure in after criticism from state-run newspaper Global Times. Denise Ho is known not only for supporting pro-democracy causes in Hong Kong, having supported the Umbrella Movement, but also support of Tibet, having both expressed support for and having met with the Dalai Lama in the past. After Global Times published a report criticizing Ho, Lancôme cancelled the planned concert featuring Ho. Global Times would later laud Lancôme’s actions. As a result of protest, Lancôme has shut down its Hong Kong locations amidst calls for a boycott of the brand. Lawmakers of pro-democracy camp were also also present at protests. Lancôme later attempted to resolve the situation by offering Denise Ho compensation for the cancelled concert.  

It is that the Chinese market is much larger than Hong Kong’s market and companies may be willing to risk offending consumers in Hong Kong if this means access to the Chinese market. This is what we see in both instances, although in the case of Lancôme, this was directly bowing to Chinese pressure. This is already the case with Taiwan, in which companies doing business with Taiwan sometimes do business with Taiwan under labels as “Taiwan, Province of China” or “Chinese Taipei” in order to avoid offending China, or do not make allowance for traditional character support because China uses simplified characters.

However, as with similar cases in the past in Taiwan, if there continues to be a pattern of companies which alienate their Hong Kong market in order to gain access to the Chinese market, this probably will contribute to the strengthening of local identity. Probably this would contribute to the sense that local identity is under attack from China, not only economically but also politically. Product brands, then, may become contested territory regarding issues of identity.

Similar to Taiwan, it is not actually that the Hong Kong market is necessarily a small one that multinational corporations would not be taking risks in alienating a sizable market. Out of the world’s 200 or so countries, in 2015 Hong Kong’s GDP was ranked 45 and Taiwan’s ranked 23. Yet though not necessarily small in taking a panoramic look at national economies the world over, both remain dwarfed by China’s GDP.

But we may point to it as a broader global phenomenon that multinational corporations have their eyes set on the massive Chinese market and they may be willing to alienate smaller markets or to turn a blind eye to China’s flagrant human rights abuses if this means access to the Chinese market. A prominent example in recent years would be in regards to Internet technology, with Internet companies willing to turn a blind eye to China’s practices of Internet censorship if this means access to the Chinese market, as in Mark Zuckerberg’s various attempts to pander to the Chinese government in the hopes that Facebook will be allowed to enter the Chinese market. Whether in cases as in Hong Kong or Taiwan in which issues of identity are also at stake or elsewhere, a broader pattern of multinational corporations accommodating themselves to China would not be altogether surprising, corporations being motivated by the profit interest as they are.

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