HONG KONG — One company is the world’s largest coffee chain. Another runs a Japanese restaurant empire. A third makes some of the most popular online games on the planet.
The global businesses — Starbucks, Yoshinoya and Activision Blizzard — would seem far removed from the political discontent in Hong Kong. But to some of the pro-democracy protesters there, and a growing number of their global allies, the companies are seen, rightly or wrongly, as sympathizers with the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, and as legitimate targets for boycotts or even vandalism.
Protesters are documenting what they see as the companies’ ties to China, then circulating the information on mobile apps and websites — sometimes based on mere rumor, or on comments made by executives or their family members. Starbucks and Yoshinoya have been repeatedly targeted because of the owner of their Hong Kong franchises, while Activision Blizzard, the maker of World of Warcraft, has been subject to boycotts for attempting to censor a pro-democracy player in Hong Kong.
The monthslong protests and their fraught politics are rippling overseas, ensnaring an ever wider range of corporations and executives, no matter their nationality. All have spent years cultivating their brands, but now find their reputations in jeopardy over any suggestion that they don’t support the protesters.
Some companies are in the awkward position of trying to dodge questions about the issue, to avoid offending either China, with its vast market, or Hong Kong activists, who have fervent support among Westerners and Taiwanese. After a single recent tweet, the N.B.A. found itself caught between both sides.
“All corporations here are walking on eggshells when it comes to what they say, whether it’s about Hong Kong or about the mainland,” said David Webb, a shareholder activist in Hong Kong.
The companies’ vulnerabilities are growing, as activists turn increasingly to vandalism and to boycotts. And Hong Kong’s reputation as a hub of freewheeling capitalism, with one of the world’s most business-friendly environments, is already suffering. These days, workers regularly sweep up glass from shops with broken windows, as shuttered storefronts with graffiti sit in the shadows of gleaming skyscrapers.
Last weekend, protesters called for rallies in shopping malls and a boycott of allegedly pro-China restaurants and stores — with a small, hard-core contingent encouraging the “renovating” (smashing) or “decorating” (spray-painting graffiti) of those locations.
At a Starbucks branch in the Tseung Kwan O district, a few protesters used hammers and a fire extinguisher to smash glass shelves, while others threw plates and trays on the ground. “The heavens will destroy the Communist Party” was spray-painted on a counter.
Some protesters attacked subway stations, including with Molotov cocktails. Many believe the MTR Corporation, the company that operates the subway, has been working with local officials to undermine protests by shutting down some stations, ending service early and, once, closing the entire system.
“The outbreak of vandalism or violence in an operating station will endanger the safety of other passengers and MTR staff,” the company said in explaining the closures.
“When I see people destroying public facilities and stores, I feel pained because you still need money to repair it,” said Michelle Tang, a 40-year-old sales worker. “I want it to be peaceful and free again,” she said of Hong Kong. “Now I wouldn’t dare say anything if people were smashing glass around me.”
As the movement settles into a prolonged campaign, activists are systematically pushing for broader boycotts.
One group developed an app, WhatsGap, that tells residents which restaurants to patronize and which ones to avoid. The ones considered friendly to the protests appear on a map of Hong Kong marked in yellow, while those considered hostile have a black marker. The developers plan to add shops.
“For a lot of people not on the front line, these are things they can do,” said Alison Yung, 36, an events planner, who backs the protests. “They can support the movement this way.”
At universities, students are handing out cards with lists of businesses to boycott and staging sit-ins at establishments on campus. Twice last month, people occupied the cafeteria of S.H. Ho College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The cafeteria’s caterer is Maxim’s Group, which is also the franchise owner of Starbucks in Hong Kong. Maxim’s has drawn the ire of activists because the founder’s daughter, Annie Wu Suk-ching, said last month in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council that the protesters were “rioters” who did not represent Hong Kong.
Maxim’s released a statement saying that Ms. Wu had no position at the company, and that it hoped “all parties” in the ongoing political conflict “will resolve their differences.”
Starbucks did not answer an email request for comment.
Yoshinoya also got the attention of activists when its Hong Kong executives fired an advertising agency that created a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page mocking the police. Hop Hing Group, which operates Yoshinoya in Hong Kong, did not return a call seeking comment.
The chief executive of Best Mart 360, a local convenience store chain, was accused of having ties to gangs from Fujian Province in mainland China that have clashed with protesters. (Best Mart 360 has denied any such ties.)
McDonald’s presents a dilemma for the movement. The chain is ubiquitous in Hong Kong (and open 24 hours), and some people have shown their support for the protesters by buying them McDonald’s coupons, to keep them going through the long demonstrations. But some activists have pointed out that McDonald’s sold an 80 percent stake in its China and Hong Kong business in 2017 to a private equity group comprised of Citic, a Chinese state-owned conglomerate, and the Carlyle Group, based in New York.
International support for the protests has made the issue harder for companies to navigate.
Last week, the Chinese government punished the N.B.A. after Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, posted a tweet in support of the protests. After the league distanced itself from Mr. Morey, some Americans began showing up at games with “Free Hong Kong” posters and banners, and members of Congress chastised the N.B.A.
Activision Blizzard faced a similar backlash after it suspended an e-sports player in Hong Kong, Chung Ng Wai, for voicing support for the movement during a live broadcast. It forced the player, who goes by the name Blitzchung, to forfeit a reported $10,000 in prize money. Many gamers called for a boycott of the company; dozens of Blizzard employees staged a walkout in protest at the company’s California headquarters; and members of Congress spoke up, too.
Blizzard said last Friday it would restore the prize money to Mr. Chung and reduce his suspension to six months, while asserting that the company’s relationship with China had not played a role in the original decision.
Whether the backlash against global brands will result in financial damage is unclear. Some actions taken by the protesters may not have much effect by themselves.
For example, protesters have been calling for a boycott of Cathay Pacific because the airline, under pressure from Beijing, has fired or punished employees who are part of the movement. But for anyone who wants to fly directly from Hong Kong to a Chinese city, it is impossible in most cases to avoid taking either Cathay or a Chinese state-owned airline. Flights between Hong Kong and mainland China are emptier than usual these days not because of a boycott, but because many Chinese want to avoid the protests.
Some activists have made mistakes in choosing which businesses to target. That was the case with Shanghai Commercial Bank. Activists vandalized at least one branch, apparently thinking the chain was based in mainland China.
But the bank is based in Hong Kong. Its motto is “serving the community.”
Tiffany May contributed reporting.
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