Democracy Takes Another Blow From China

Denise Ho. (Image: Verity via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)
Denise Ho. (Image: Verity via flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

China continues to exercise its soft power to sanction celebrities from Hong Kong who are pro-democracy.

On Sunday, global cosmetics firm Lancôme cancelled a mini concert in Hong Kong after Chinese state-run nationalist newspaper Global Times suggested on social media that the brand supported “pro-Hong Kong and Tibet independence artist” Denise Ho by inviting her to promotional activities.

Denise Ho is a Hong Kong-based pop singer and an outspoken supporter of the city’s LGBT community and pro-democracy movement. She backed the 3-month-long Occupy Central protests in 2014, which called for genuine democratic elections in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China with a high degree of autonomy. Because of that, she was banned from making appearances in Mainland China alongside other celebrities, including pop singer Anthony Wong Yui Ming and movie stars Chapman To and Anthony Wong Chau Sang.

Aside from the official sanction, the Chinese propaganda machine has been actively mobilizing netizens to go after dissident artists online. In 2014, tens of thousands of mainland netizens voted in an online poll in favor of blacklisting Hong Kong pro-democracy artists, while state-run news site Xinhua ran a commentary attacking the artists for “crushing the bowls that feed them.”

Lancome's concert poster. via Denise Ho's facebook.

The mini concert was supposed to take place in a café in Hong Kong. On popular microblogging site Weibo, Global Times implied Lancôme, as well as mouthwash brand Listerine, for which Ho is a spokesperson, was taking a political position by employing her:

Ho has never expressed support for independence for either Hong Kong or Tibet, an autonomous region of China that is the focus of a worldwide Free Tibet movement. In its message, Global Times used the word du (毒), which means toxic, instead of du (獨), which means independence, as a way to further mislead mainland netizens on the Cantonese pop singer’s politics. The two words are distinctive in meaning, but sometimes are interchangeable.

The post was removed after Lancôme issued a statement clarifying that Ho is not their spokesperson. However, the statement did not stop mainland netizens from bombarding the brand. Tens of thousands comments flooded in, calling for a boycott.

Eventually, Lancôme issued another statement on Facebook that the company had decided to cancel the mini concert on June 19 because of “safety” concerns. For her part, Ho found the sudden cancellation unacceptable. She wrote on her Facebook page urging the cosmetics firm to explain its decision:

Adrian Chow, an outspoken song composer, was rather pessimistic about the state of freedom of expression in Hong Kong, given the economic clout that Mainland China wields. He looked into the 2015 annual report of L’Oreal, Lancôme’s parent company, and concluded that the company would easily give up Hong Kong for guaranteed access to China’s market:

However, not all businesses are bowing before the People’s Republic of China. Listerine’s parent company Johnson & Johnson, has thus far ignored Global Times’ post and continued with Ho as their official spokesperson. In fact, Listerine references her coming out as a lesbian back in 2012, and uses the slogan “bold love, bold expression” for its branding.

Listerine neglects Global Times' political label and continues using Denise Ho as the brand's public face in Hong Kong. Image from Listerine's Facebook.

The company’s stance has won much praise from Hong Kongers on its Facebook page:

This article by Oiwan Lam originally appeared on Global Voices.

[Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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