Olivia Parker
Aug 21, 2019

How ads are used as weapons in Hong Kong protests

Adverts that promote the demands and opinions of various factions are an enduring feature of pro-democracy movements—and they largely favour print as their medium.

Clockwise from top left: a billboard in London advertising a rally; an ad in the New York Times; a message projected onto the British Houses of Parliament; an ad in Sweden's Dagens Industri [Photos: @standwithhk Facebook account]
Clockwise from top left: a billboard in London advertising a rally; an ad in the New York Times; a message projected onto the British Houses of Parliament; an ad in Sweden's Dagens Industri [Photos: @standwithhk Facebook account]

Print advertising still has its uses, as has been clearly evidenced this summer.

Demonstrations in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China governed under a 'One Country, Two Systems' model, have been ongoing since March, when the Hong Kong government tried to push through a controversial extradition law that many in the city believe could leave them vulnerable to unregulated transfer to the mainland. The protests have scaled in size from June and have in recent weeks developed into a fight for broader democratic freedoms in the city. 

Aside from the demands at its heart, the various elements that characterise the ongoing protests include tear gas, riot police, black t-shirts, umbrellas and slogans such as "be water" (a take on a Bruce Lee quote that the protesters have adopted to sum up their tactic of remaining flexible during demonstrations). But ads, too, have played a significant role. 

Here is our roundup of some of the key ways in which different factions have deployed newspaper, billboard and digital advertisements in the Hong Kong protests so far.

19 August: Global newspapers publish protesters' third crowdfunded ad campaign

The third collection of adverts paid for with a crowdfunding campaign started by Hong Kong pro-democracy groups was published in 11 newspapers around the world including America's The New York Times, The Globe and Mail in Canada and Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun. 

Tailored to the local language in each of the 10 countries where the newspapers are published, the ads are uncompromising in their plea to 'Catch Hong Kong As We Fall' and 'Stand With Hong Kong Until Dawn'. They include a letter calling for readers' help in urging their governments to stand with the protesters and tell their story. 

The campaign, the result of donations amounting to HK$1,859,790 (US$237,132) raised on the crowdfunding platform gofundme.com since August 11, will run to 18 ads in 13 countries in total. It was organised as a collaboration by two factions of the protest movement, FreedomHKG and Stand With HK. 

16 August: Hong Kong accountants make a stand

Hong Kong-based tabloid newspaper Apple Daily published a full-page advert featuring a letter purporting to be from "A Group of Big 4 Accounting Firms Employees." The 'Big 4' is a reference to the world's four largest accounting companies: Deloitte, KPMG, EY and PwC. 

The ad features a picture of a demonstration and lists the five official demands of the movement, which include the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests on 12 June as 'riots', and universal suffrage. It also states: 

The leaders of our respective firms have publicly condemned the protests, displaying a narrow focus on their self-interest which ignores the purpose of the demonstration and our yearning for democracy and freedom in Hong Kong. Therefore, as a group of Big 4 staff, we hereby emphasize that the firms' statements do not represent us.

The money for this ad was also apparently raised via a crowdfunding campaign on gogetfunding.com, which gathered HK$77,450 (US$9,875, exceeding the target of HK$70,000) in less than 24 hours.

All four of the firms quickly put out official responses to the ad
, saying they could not verify the source or authenticity of the statement and reiterating their official stance against any actions that "challenge national sovereignty". 

(A similar turn of events involving the Big 4 took place in 2014 during Hong Kong's pro-democracy Occupy Central protests. Three days after the companies published an ad criticising the movement in several local newspapers, another ad, apparently published by the firms' employees, came out in Apple Daily which read: ‘Hey Boss, Your Statement Doesn’t Represent Us’.)

14 and 15 August: The tycoons weigh in

Hong Kong's richest man and the 30th richest person in the world, 91-year-old businessman Li Ka-shing, took out two full-page ads in local Hong Kong newspapers. One, a colour ad in the Chinese-language publication Sing Tao Daily, featured the Chinese character for 'violence' in the centre of a stop symbol.

The other, a black-and-white ad published in, among other places, the South China Morning Post, is harder to interpret. It features eight characters that translate as "The melon of Huangtai cannot bear the picking again", a phrase from a Tang dynasty poem by Li Xian that Li has quoted before in reponse to political events. Its meaning relates to suffering when faced with persecution. 

The next day, August 15, Li's fellow billionnaire Lui Che-woo, a property developer, followed suit with another full-page ad in Sing Tao Daily, which said that government should channel more resources into young people's education, specifically to make sure they better understand Chinese morals. He also called for the government and "various sectors" to "open the doors for communication in a rational way".  

11 August: Billboard ads and rallies in the UK

Billboard adverts organised by the Stand With HK group appeared at six locations in five British cities. Three rallies were also arranged on the same day, with calls for supporters to dress up in Hong Kong riot gear, including a yellow helmet, gloves and goggles, aiming to "show how it is like [sic] to be on the front line of the resistance efforts in Hong Kong". 

24 July: Newspaper ads in the UK — protesters' second crowdfunded campaign

Ads targeting the British Government and British MPs started to appear in British media outlets following a second successful funding drive that started on July 11 and raised HK$3,049,592 (£319,493) on gofundme.com. (Below: a full-page ad in the London Evening Standard on 25 July)

This funding was also used to found a website, standwithhk.org, that included 'An open letter to the people of the United Kingdom' calling for support and for British people to urge their MPs to impose sanctions on "those responsible for or complicit in suppressing human rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Sino-British Joint Declaration" and to commit to protecting "human rights, freedom of expression and Hong Kong’s democratisation in any post-Brexit agreements with China and Hong Kong." 

28 June: Stand With Hong Kong, the first crowdfunded campaign

A full-page black and white ad was published in several international newspapers today, timed to coincide with the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, which gathered world leaders including Xi Jinping and Donald Trump to discuss themes relating to global sustainable development. 

The ad, titled 'Stand with Hong Kong at G20', took the form of an open letter listing the demands of the Hong Kong protest movement and urging leaders to "bring them to the table" at the summit. It was published in the New York Times, the Guardian and Japan Times, among others. 

Again, this was made possible by a crowdfunding appeal on gogetfunding.com, which far exceeded the target of HK$3 million (US$382,521) and raised HK$5,484,299 (US$699,287) in a day, with thousands of people donating. The largest donation was HK$30,000 (US$3,825). 

8 April: League of Social Democrats targets former Hong Kong chief executive

Eight days after a rally on 31 March, the first protest march against the proposed extradition bill, a full-page ad appeared on the front page of Apple Daily, the Hong Kong tabloid. 

Paid for by a crowdfunding campaign run by Avery Ng, the chairman of the League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy party in Hong Kong, the ad depicts the former chief executive of Hong Kong (the predecessor of Carrie Lam), Leung Chun-ying, wearing a hat featuring the Communist Party logo above a headline that translates as "Support CY Leung to become president. Head north as soon as possible to replace Xi [Jinping]". The ad's tongue-in-cheek tone expresses apparent concern over CY Leung's mental state, suggesting he must be "bored" because he has the time to document on Facebook every company that advertises in Apple Daily, widely seen as a pro-democracy paper. 

CY Leung continues to post on Facebook every day, calling out the companies that are advertising with the paper, which have in recent days included KFC and Sky Dragon, a company that sells abalone. 

More coverage of the Hong Kong protests



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