HK Concert Cancellation a Flash Point with Beijing

The announcement that Canto-pop singer and democracy advocate Denise Ho Wan-si is to host a free concert in Hong Kong on June 19 caps an extraordinary two weeks that demonstrate both attempts by Beijing to bully the territory and deep and continuing anger at China that has been boiling for months.

The controversy has to be understood in the context of inexorably growing aversion in Hong Kong to the central government. That anger burst into the open in 2014 when the central government, in contravention of the Basic Law agreed between the United Kingdom and China prior to the 1997 handover, ruled there would be no universal suffrage for territory-wide elections scheduled for 2017. That resulted in the Occupy movement, which shut major streets in the central business district and Kowloon across Victoria Harbor for 77 days. It has only grown since.

It also represents a publicity disaster for cosmetics giant Lancôme, which hired Ho for a June 5 concert, then for “safety reasons” called off the planned performance, one of a series of “miniconcerts” to draw business to eight Lancôme shops in the Sheung Wan area west of the Central District after an article in the fire-breathing Beijing mouthpiece Global Times accused Lancôme of showcasing a “Hong Kong independence advocate.”

Lancôme knows where its bread is buttered. According to local media reports, the annual reports of L’Oreal, which controls Lancôme, show that while its Hong Kong profit doubled from €42.7 million in 2011 to €87.9 in 2015 its mainland profit grew even faster from €139.4 million in 2011 to €320.7 million last year – almost four times that in Hong Kong.

However, the reaction in both China and Hong Kong has been stupendous, with Chinese netizens accusing the French cosmetics manufacturer of cowardice. Lancôme was forced to close 23 boutique outlets temporarily in the city last week after furious protesters marched on several outlets to tape up signs accusing it of self-censorship and of ‘kowtowing” to Beijing.

Instead of going away, the controversy has continued to percolate, with continuing boycotts and a video that went viral of District Counselor Christine Fong of flushing her Lancôme products down the toilet.

On June 16, Ho announced she would host a five-hour free event called “The Beauty of WE” in almost the same area where Lancôme had originally scheduled it, although she promised there would be no political statements. Instead of benefitting the Lancôme shops, Ho has invited concert-goers to patronize cafes and local leather, pottery and floral workshops in the area.

Prior to the dust-up over Ho’s concert, tensions had been simmering in Hong Kong not over just the universal suffrage issue but a array of others, including the massive boost in mainland tourists into the territory, with mainland mothers-to-be taking up the lion’s share of maternity beds so that their children could be born there. At one point, Hong Kong authorities, fed up with parallel traders buying up all the milk powder in the city and selling it at higher prices, announced the traders could be jailed for up to two years and fined as much as HK$500,000 for possession of two cans of the stuff, used for baby formula.

Tourism arrivals spiked from fewer than 140,000 per month in 2012 to more than 220,000 in 2015 before they started to fall. Longstanding restaurants and other shops in Hong Kong were put out of business and replaced by hugely expensive Italian, French and Swiss boutiques frequented by the nouveaux-riches of China. Hong Kong commuters have been enraged by the uncouth behavior of Chinese tourists on the city’ light-rail system.

The situation culminated last autumn with the siege by tens of thousands of pro-democracy campaigners of the Occupy movement – with Denis Ho conspicuously involved – vainly demanding universal suffrage in next year’s elections. The increasingly unpopular government of Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, who had in effect been put in place by Beijing via the current bastardized electoral system, was largely shown to be doing the central government’s bidding.

In the months since, China has been continually increasing its pressure on Hong Kong despite its 1997 promise to leave it alone for 50 years. That pressure has taken a variety of avenues including using its clout through Leung to deny the appointment of a political liberal to the post of vice-chancellor in charge of academic staffing and resources at the prestigious Hong Kong University, which was at the epicenter of the Occupy movement.

Pressure has particularly grown over the independent press, with Internet tycoon Jack Ma, almost certainly at Beijing’s behest, buying the South China Morning Post, Asia’s leading English-language newspaper. Ho publicly announced he wanted more good news on China, and he is getting it.

Another media irritant, the formerly independent Ming Pao, was bought over by a Chinese tycoon from Sarawak. The paper promptly fired its editor for printing the names of Chinese and Hong Kong tycoons with secret accounts exposed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in the Panama Papers.

Also, as Asia Sentinel reported last September, Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption arrested a waiter and charged him with trying spend HK$400,000 – a considerable amount for a waiter – to bribe or persuade various people to stand as candidates in district council elections, a criminal offense under the electoral law. These were apparent attempts to split the vote in some constituencies enough to allow pro-Beijing candidates to win in hostile districts.

Critics say government is being systematically undermined by pro-Beijing forces through stealth and infiltration of the civil service, universities, politicization of policing and the education system. With Leung a weak and largely despised chief executive, decisions are more and more being made by the China Liaison Office.

Hong Kong, whose citizens, especially the young, don’t identify themselves as part of China, has responded with defiance. Football matches between Chinese teams and Hong Kong ones are policed by hundreds of policemen to make sure violence doesn’t erupt. Playing of the Chinese national anthem is booed loudly by the locals. The British colonial flag is often displayed by the young in Hong Kong. The Lancome flap is just another of the continuing points of tension between the mainland and the city. It is unlikely that they are going to go away, and in fact they can be guaranteed to grow.