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Unable to occupy Hong Kong, demonstrators go shopping to protest

Wednesday, February 11, 2015 - 08:55
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In a novel twist to influencing politics through commerce, Hong Kong protesters are going shopping to spread their pro- democracy message.

[HONG KONG] In a novel twist to influencing politics through commerce, Hong Kong protesters are going shopping to spread their pro- democracy message. Carrying the bright yellow umbrellas symbolic of the movement, they are marching through shops and driving away tourists.

"It's part of the civil disobedience philosophy of taking resistance to everyday life," said Sebastian Veg, director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong. "You don't have to be camping out in front of a government office, but if you have an hour after you leave work you can set up a shopping group, chant or sing for universal suffrage and make life hard for the police." The shopping tours are an attempt to keep alive the debate over greater rights for the city's leadership election in 2017, after 11 weeks of student-led rallies ended without winning concessions from China. As Hong Kong prepares for the influx of Chinese tourists coming for the Lunar New Year holiday next week, the protests may curb sales at retailers already smarting from falling revenue in December.

Annual retail sales in Hong Kong declined last year for the first time since 2003 as Chinese President Xi Jinping's campaign against corruption and extravagance crimped spending. Luxury goods were especially hard hit, with sales slumping 16.3 per cent in December. The holidays this year start on Feb. 18.

The holidays typically see an influx of mainland tourists, who last year bumped up retail sales by one third, according to David O'Rear, chief economist for the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. Last year, the city was the most popular destination for Chinese tourists with 47.2 million visitors, though the pro-democracy movement that occupied parts of downtown cast a shadow.

"Hong Kong will pay a heavy price," unless it does more to cater to mainlanders who are increasingly headed to other destinations for shopping and sightseeing, warned a Jan 26 editorial in the Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party-affiliated People's Daily.

Protesters had occupied swathes of Hong Kong last quarter to demand that China lift a demand to screen candidates for the 2017 chief executive election. After the police evicted them from the streets in December, some of the activists decided to take to the shops.

Nearly every night, anywhere from a handful to a few dozen activists can be spotted holding yellow umbrellas in shopping districts including Mong Kok.

They were partly inspired by Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's appeal to help retailers affected by the protests by going shopping, said Amos Ho, a 37-year-old clerk at a power company, who joined some of the tours.

The other inspiration came from an earlier televised interview of a Chinese tourist at the protest zone who when asked why she was there said she was shopping, said Veg. Her mispronunciation of the Cantonese phrase for shopping was then picked up by pun-loving Internet users who transcribed it with a vulgar term referring to the male anatomy.

The protest are loosely organised via social media or fliers on the street.

"Actually this shopping protest is very funny," Mr Ho said.

For many, though, shopping is serious in Hong Kong. Society pages feature as many red carpet store openings as charity balls. Hong Kong is the world's biggest importer of Swiss watches. Fully 8 per cent of the luxury goods sold by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA are paid for in Hong Kong dollars.

New Year's eve events planned next to two major Hong Kong shopping districts were canceled after the protests began.

"The point of this is since all the occupy sites were removed, the people feel like nothing was achieved," said James Bang, a 28-year-old who lost his job after he took too much time off to join the street protests. "The people feel like nothing was achieved, no concessions, no negotiations, nothing at all. We feel we have to make a statement and go out there so people see us everyday." And this being Hong Kong, there's one other point, he said: "People love to shop anyway, so it's just perfect."

BLOOMBERG