Hong Kong businesses caught in crossfire of protest crisis, as new phone apps make politics part of shopping

Kanis Leung

Hong Kong businesses have been caught in a political crossfire as both protesters and government supporters take the fight to local companies that fail to see the current crisis the way they do.

The trend of linking businesses to alleged political affiliations has escalated online.

Users of LIHKG – a Reddit-like online platform that has become a virtual main stage for the protest movement – have developed two mobile phone applications that identify the political positions of stores, restaurants and products.

On another online forum, users listed businesses that appeared to be supporting protesters, with the named companies ranging from eateries to media outlets.

Protesters on Lockhart Road in Causeway Bay on August 4 after a rally at Belcher Bay Park in Kennedy Town. Photo: Sam Tsang

Divisive views have dragged businesses into the political crisis since the turmoil began two months ago. Shop owners and entrepreneurs are constantly at risk of offending locals, mainlanders or even Taiwanese – and the city suffered a 6.7 per cent drop in retail sales in June.

Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea was pulled into the fracas after pictures circulated online of its Hong Kong branch closed during the citywide strike on August 5. The images generated criticism on Weibo, the mainland’s most popular social media network.

The tea brand’s mainland distributor scambled to address the complaints by putting out a statement on its official Weibo account to “oppose the violent strike”. The company said it was determined to safeguard the “one country, two systems” principle.

But that statement in turn shocked consumers in Hong Kong and Taiwan, prompting the local company to explain that it actually had no Weibo account.

WhatsGap is a new mobile phone application that gather online information – including alleged political views – on local restaurants. Photo: Handout

The company said: “The Hong Kong general distributor respects the individual political positions of the various branches, and strongly believes that Hong Kong is an inclusive, free and open place.”

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan weighed in on Tuesday, saying “natural fruit teas are certainly the best out of all of them, but they don’t taste good if they are flavoured with politics”.

The Hong Kong brand manager for the tea, who only gave her surname as Cheung, said the misunderstanding had hurt business and her boss was a victim of doxxing, which involves the posting of private data of a person or their family online.

“The incident over the Weibo statement affected business even more. It really depends on the political opinions of different customers, which have an impact on consumer choices,” she said.

Despite its efforts to shake off the scandal, Yifang Hong Kong has been listed as one of hundreds of businesses highlighted on “WhatsGap”, a new mobile application that gathers online data about restaurants. When users click on the location pin of a business, details are provided an why customers should pay attention to the shop’s alleged politics. Consumers must determine on their own if the information is credible.

When users click on a Yifang branch, for example, it brings up part of the Weibo statement and a rebuttal made by a local worker who said the boss fully supported her decision to join the strike.

The application has been installed on more than 5,000 devices, with reviews such as “useful and practical guide for living in Hong Kong!” and “best app to choose your restaurants”.

An application soon to be launched is “Freedom Filter” aims to help consumers decide whether a business is “yellow” or “blue” – the colours representing the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps in local protests.

Yifang Taiwan Fruit Tea, a Taiwanese tea shop in Causeway Bay. The brand has been in hot water after a video linking it to protesters went viral. Photo: Dickson Lee

Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu, director of ACE Centre for Business and Economic Research, said labelling companies based on their alleged politics might hurt businesses with very overt political opinions — but that tactic would not hurt Hong Kong’s overall retail sales figures.

“It gives a sense that [the city] is increasingly drifting apart, which is not a good thing,” he said. “But I don’t think it will succeed. LIHKG users underestimate human behaviour.”

Wharf Real Estate Investment Company became cautious after developer Sun Hung Kai Properties faced backlash for allegedly mishandling clashes between protesters and police at one of its shopping centres.

Wharf Real Estate posted notices at its malls urging police not to enter unless a crime had taken place. The move prompted protesters to call off their planned disruption at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui on August 8.

A notice said to have been posted at a local hospital this week went viral after protesters appreciated the message that local police could not enjoy discounted prices in the staff canteen. Cafe de Coral Group, the food chain that manages the canteen, told local media that the notice was not made by its staff and was not posted at the eatery.

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