Shopping Politically

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Protesters initiate shop boycott campaigns as an alternative to express their political views.

By Cynthia Sit

Politics is integrated into our daily lives that even our consumption pattern is impacted amid the anti-government movement. Protesters and several online campaigners call on HongKongers to boycott pro-government companies, which are identified as “blue stores”, to pressurize the government into responding demands raised during the Anti-ELAB (extradition legislation amendment bill) Movement. Exercising the power of consumer choice by boycotting businesses that support the government has become a strategy to sustain the movement. 

Advocating the change of consumption pattern to bring political empowerment

Bye Buy Day, one of the online action groups initiates the shop boycott movement because economy is the government’s most vulnerable spot. They urge consumers to spend less on Fridays and Sundays and boycott pro-government businesses, naming some high-profile enterprises such as Maxim’s, Swire, Best Mart 360 and MTR malls. Shops are targeted based on actions that they have taken in response to the recent protests and political stances that their owners have publicly stated.

“We believe that consumers have the power to steer and shape our future economy or even the political system,” a representative of Bye Buy Day HK who declines to reveal his name explains. “People can choose to support businesses that share their political opinions. This way, businesses will know that they need to have conscience and align themselves with people’s view in order to prosper.” 

Sticker written ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” posted on the information board inside Festival Walk on 29 September

Reaching over 27,000 followers on Facebook and having over 1.3 million views on their online posts, organizers of Bye Buy Day are confident their campaign can raise public awareness that political agenda can be influenced through their consumption. “Many supporters told us they have started to minimise their spending already. In particular, when we first held our booth near Windsor in Causeway Bay during the Aug 18 protest to promote our campaign, many middle-aged men and women expressed their support to us, ” the representative of Bye Buy Day says.  

Embracing the concept of dollar voting, the campaign does not urge supporters to avoid consumption completely but simply minimise unnecessary purchases. Dollar voting accentuates the power of consumers to determine resources allocation of business, which in turn also influences the rise and fall of business under conscious selection of products from companies based on certain criteria. “All we’re calling for is a reasonable, but not a radical change in their spending patterns,” the representative emphasizes. 

People gathering at Festival Walk for a Shop Boycott Event on 29 September

Emergence of “ethical businesses” 

While some shops are snubbed, shops supporting the Anti-ELAB Movement see the fruit through the boycott campaign – customers began to support these ‘ethical businesses’ by consuming more. Hungry Dino, a takeaway eatery established in early June, becomes one of the businesses hailed by netizens as ‘ethical business’ after the shop owners decided to give out free meals to protesters. The owners, however, did not expect their own political stance would receive any public attention. 

Tim Law Kin-sun and Tracy Tang So-lan, cofounders of Hungry Dino, decided to distribute free rice balls and sell prepaid rice ball coupons during Anti-ELAB protests in late July. Since then, they have sold over 10,000 prepaid rice ball coupons and gave away around 7,500 coupons. 

Being honoured as an “ethical owner”, Law finds the phenomenon surprising as  he has no intention to make use of his political stand to boost his business. 

Tim Law Kin-sun, the co-founder of Hungry Dino

He is thankful but at the same time questions the power of the shop boycott movement. “Consumers can never support all the ‘ethical businesses’. These small-scale ‘ethical businesses” will be eliminated by the market trend while pro-government businesses may still survive in the market,” says Law. 

So far Hungry Dino still fails to make ends meet since its opening.  Despite the fact that the launch of the business coincided with the critical time of Anti-ELAB Movement, Law does not want to attribute the loss solely to the government as economic decline and mismanagement of his own can also be the reasons. He believes the turnover rate will be similar whether he has expressed any political view or not. 

Although Law agrees that the boycott campaign can give consumers a sense of contribution to the movement, he is afraid that the campaign will not be able to bring changes to their consumption habits in the long run. “Many restaurants and shops showed their support for the Umbrella Movement (in 2014). But would anyone continue to support these businesses after two years just because they had spoken out for the movement back then?” Law questions.

Memo stickers posted by customers inside Hungry Dino.

Shop boycott in reality

Altering consumption pattern is not as easy as it sounds. For Miss Sin, a university student, who declines to reveal her full name, living in a community surrounded by MTR malls means she is confined to join the boycott campaign due to geographical restrictions. She is forced to do shopping at chain stores. “To be honest, most of the enterprises and firms in Hong Kong are pro-government, and it is difficult to avoid all purchases from all of them,” the boycotter of MTR related shops says.

Sin points out many people are still shopping at stores that should be boycotted. She believes unity among the mass to engage in the campaign is vital to keep the action going. Even though she has doubts regarding the impact of the boycott movement, she still hopes her actions can influence others in the future.

People gathering at Festival Walk for a Shop Boycott Event on 29 September

Recognizing the potential limits of the boycott movement, yet, Sin still supports the campaign. “Shop boycott is already a method to express our political views at the lowest cost,’ the 19-year-old student says, as she thinks it is shameful not to support the Anti-ELAB Movement with a comparatively laid-back way. 

“I understand that a lot of peaceful protesters would have their own concerns and they may not be able to take to the streets anymore. However, participating in the shop boycott movement is already the most minimal degree of resistance, then (we) should at least try our best to do it,” she adds. 

People sticking flyers on the facade of a Maxim-owned restaurant

A secondary school student, who names herself Miss Chau, sees the shop boycott movement in a different way. She thinks her daily spending pattern is partially affected by the campaign. She boycotts businesses that publicly criticise or insult protesters on social media platforms, but most shops in the boycott list are not those she usually opts for. 

And though supporting the campaign, she says she has to be pragmatic. “I will not boycott the shops completely, but I will reduce my spending at these shops. If there are no other choices available, I will still shop there,” says Chau.

Like the takeaway eatery owner, Chau is doubtful about the sustainability of the boycott movement as she sees chain stores like Yoshiyona and other Hong Kong franchises owned by Maxim’s are winning their customers back.  “The phenomenon reflects the ‘forgetful’ characteristic of Hong Kong people. The shop owners will just ignore the movement,” Chau says. 

People connecting paper reservation slips from restaurants into a long string in a Shop Boycott Event on 29 September

Edited by Scarlet Shiu