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Saturday, Sep 19, 2020

‘Hong Kong remains free’: city launches new PR blitz overseas after six months of protests

Full-page advert appearing in newspapers across the world touts the freedoms granted under ‘one country, two systems’. But sceptics say city is past the point at which political cracks can be papered over

The Hong Kong government has launched its second advertising campaign this year aimed at overseas investors and visitors, insisting the city remains a “welcoming, free society” despite six months of anti-government protests and turmoil.

The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The Australian newspapers on Monday carried a full-page advertisement extolling Hong Kong for its strong fundamentals even as it struggles through its worst political crisis since the 1997 handover.

“It’s been tough but we will soldier on,” the advert says. “The economy has taken a dip, but we will bounce back strong.”

While describing the international financial hub as “competitive” and “highly internationalised,” the advert touts the rights and freedoms granted to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” governing principle, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and the free flow of capital. Under the principle, the city is promised a high-level of autonomy from Beijing and rights and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.

The latest PR push, which will roll out across newspapers in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, comes after the Hong Kong government in September took out similar adverts touting the city as a “safe, open, welcoming and cosmopolitan society and an internationally connected, vibrant and dynamic economy”.

The earlier ad campaign – which described the unrest as a “complex social, economic, and political jigsaw puzzle” that Hongkongers would “solve on our own” – appeared in newspapers including The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Australian Financial Review and The Straits Times. In September, the government told the South China Morning Post the PR drive had cost HK$7.4 million to date.

The latest campaign follows some of the worst violence of the crisis that has gripped the city since June, after an attempt by the government to introduce a law allowing the extradition of criminal suspects to other jurisdictions including mainland China sparked mass protests that have evolved into a wider anti-government movement, marked by episodes of violence and vandalism by protesters.

In separate incidents last month, a 70-year-old man was killed after being struck on the head with a brick and a man suffered life-threatening burns after being set on fire. Police have fired multiple live rounds, including one that hit an 18-year-old protester in the chest. He has since been discharged from hospital.

The unrest has taken a major toll on the city’s economy, with GDP contracting 3.2 per cent in the third-quarter amid a plunge in tourist arrivals of nearly 35 per cent in September year on year.

“Social unrest and violent protests have seriously affected Hong Kong’s international image and adversely affected the economy, particularly the tourism, retail, hotel, food and beverage sectors,” said Evelyn Ho, a spokeswoman at the Information Services Department.

“The Hong Kong SAR Government needs to update international audiences about the latest situation in Hong Kong.”
“The purpose of the ads is to stress to international audiences that Hong Kong remains a welcoming and free society, that Hong Kong will soldier on and that our economy will bounce back strong, given our strong fundamentals,” Ho said.

Ho said the total cost of the campaign was not yet known as advertisements were still being placed in newspapers.

However, Ben Bland, a research fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute and the author of Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow, expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of the adverts.

“Hong Kong is way past the point at which PR campaigns can paper over the deep political cracks in the city’s foundations,” said Bland.

“Hong Kong is a major commercial hub for Australian investors and they are concerned about the city’s direction of travel. However, the Hong Kong government is unlikely to reassure them by simply repeating slogans about the city’s freedoms.”
James Laurenceson, acting director of the Australia-China Relations Institute in Sydney, said a PR campaign would probably have little impact on the perceptions of Australian businesses.

“Most are sensible enough to understand that there remain material differences, including significant benefits, from being located in Hong Kong rather than the mainland,” Laurenceson said.

“Nonetheless, there’s also now a growing view that ‘one country, two systems’ isn’t the same strong and sustainable formula it was once seen to be. And in terms of trade flows, the mainland remains the main economic game.”


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