A war of words has broken out in Hong Kong between supporters of Canto-pop star and democracy activist Denise Ho and Chinese nationalists who called on cosmetics maker Lancôme to drop her from a concert billing. Ho was slated to perform at a Hong Kong cafe on June 19 in a small concert sponsored by Lancôme. But on June 5 the French cosmetics company canceled the concert, citing “possible safety reasons.” Lancôme subsequently closed several of its stores in Hong Kong Wednesday as protesters and lawmakers accused the company of self-censorship and kowtowing to Beijing:
Cartoonist Badiucao joined those accusing the company of bowing to the mainland, reworking a Lancôme advertisement to feature the embalmed body of Mao Zedong:
Forever Young, by Badiucao for CDT:
Ho was arrested at Occupy Central, the massive street protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong that took place in the fall of 2014. She was blacklisted from the mainland at that time, according to a leaked directive from China’s Ministry of Culture. But as Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam reports, the state media article that sparked the affair may have misrepresented her political views:
On Sunday, global cosmetics firm Lancôme cancelled a mini concert in Hong Kong after Chinese state-run nationalist newspaper Global Times suggested on social media that the brand supported “pro-Hong Kong and Tibet independence artist” Denise Ho by inviting her to promotional activities.
[…] Ho has never expressed support for independence for either Hong Kong or Tibet, an autonomous region of China that is the focus of a worldwide Free Tibet movement. In its message, Global Times used the word “du (毒)” which means toxic instead of “du (獨) which means independence as a way to further mislead mainland netizens on the Cantonese pop singer’s politics. The two words are distinctive in meaning, but sometimes are interchangeable.
The post was removed after Lancôme issued a statement clarifying that Ho is not their spokesperson. However, the statement did not stop mainland netizens from bombarding the brand. Tens of thousands comments flooded in, calling for boycott. [Source]
In recent days, netizens have attacked Lancôme from both sides of the Great Firewall. A screenshot from Lancôme’s Facebook page archived at CDT Chinese shows dozens of comments from mainlanders bashing the company for “finding a supporter of Hong Kong independence to peddle your wares,” as well as Hong Kongers calling for an apology. The same arguments cropped up on Weibo:
Nikeluobinzhigengniao (@妮可罗宾知更鸟): If you want to leave the Chinese market just say it. We won’t stop you.
Mangguotangtangtangtangtangtangtang (@芒果糖糖糖糖糖糖糖): I fervently hope for the rise of Chinese skin care products.
Xiaowuyufu (@小武渔夫): It’s not so simple to just distance yourself from Lancôme. Our fight with supporters of Hong Kong independence, Taiwan independence, and Tibet independence, and with Denise Ho has just begun! If you violate China, no matter how far away, we will put you to death. [Chinese]
Listerine was also targeted for choosing Ho as its brand ambassador in Hong Kong. In an exchange on WeChat, a user asked Listerine why Ho represents their company in China. When Listerine explained that the mainland ambassador is actually footballer Neymar, the user retorted, “Isn’t Hong Kong part of China? Do you support Hong Kong independence?”
Chinese consumers also urged a boycott of businesses owned by tycoon Li Ka-shing because an online music store owned by his son had backed Ho.
In a statement on her Facebook page, Ho says Lancôme “seriously misled the public and jeopardized my personal reputation.” She appeals to the company to explain why the concert was canceled, and warns against bowing to pressure from Beijing:
I say this with respect, but corporations do have social responsibility in addition to pursuing profits. My engagement with Lancôme was meant to be a pure artistic collaboration in music. However, the engagement was rudely cancelled unilaterally, with awkward and ambiguous reasons that enraged many of us. To my understanding, the decision was pressured by the brand’s headquarters in France, and if this is in fact true, I feel it deserves an explanation. I hereby urge them to clarify on the decision, to clear my name and give the public a reasonable explanation.
Should we stop self-censoring out of fear and start respecting ourselves and others based on good honest work—we could all be freer. This is what my statement is about. It is about freedom and justice. Because the reality is that if we opt to stay mute and do nothing, these would all be stripped away from us before we notice. [Source]
The campaign against Lancôme on Facebook echoes the backlash against Taiwanese-born K-pop star Chou Tzu-yu in January. To quell netizen rage over a music video in which Chou holds a Taiwan flag, her label released a video of Chou apologizing for the slight, and asserting that “there is only one China.” Nevertheless, the controversy resulted in the cancellation of lucrative deals with Chinese television and electronics manufacturer Huawei. The video was released on Taiwan’s election day, when Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen won in a landslide. Soon after the election, netizens “scaled” the Great Firewall to troll Tsai’s Facebook page. The “little pinks” (小粉红) launching these online “expeditions” tend to be young and female, as Initium reporter Wu Jing found in interviews with three foot soldiers in the campaign against Tsai.
Navigating the sensitivities of both nationalist mainlanders and liberals abroad is a growing challenge for global companies, as the recent controversy over Marvel’s ‘white-washing’ of a 500-year-old Tibetan character showed.