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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2020

‘Yellow’ vs ‘blue’ economy might push businesses into the red

Is it fair to demand small business owners, who put money and hard work into their ventures, take a political stand?

Kung hei fat choi and best wishes to everyone for the Year of the Rat.

Out of curiosity, I recently looked at a map-based app that is supposed to guide Hong Kong consumers as to which businesses are “yellow” – supporting the protest movement. The idea is that consumers who support the protests can choose to patronise businesses that share their political views.

Most of the businesses shown on the app are retailers and personal services providers. Although a lot are food and beverage related, many restaurants are not mentioned at all. If you only used the ones marked as “yellow”, your choice would be restricted.

The app also categorises many businesses as “blue” to indicate that their owners are pro-Beijing or against the protest movement. This is where the idea becomes more worrying.

People are obviously free to boycott businesses for political reasons. Years ago, international consumers boycotted a prominent sportswear brand because of labour conditions in the suppliers’ factories. In the US, some people avoid a particular fast food chain for its owners’ stance on gay rights.

But looking at this app, I notice a store in my neighbourhood that is classified as “blue”. It is in fact part of an upmarket chain of delis aimed at expats. The app listings say why businesses deserve a “blue” rating. It seems one branch of this chain once closed its doors so protesters fleeing police could not get in.

Maybe this particular company has not noticed any change in its sales because of this “blue” listing. But it does raise the question of who decides whether a business is picked out in this way.

The app is a crowdsourced platform – users can submit the names and locations of businesses and give a reason why it should have a particular colour. I would guess these apps are run by groups of activists who probably do not care if they are potentially hurting small business owners for no good reason.

There are several apps and websites like this. One grades businesses on a scale, including “red” for mainland-owned. It doesn’t mention the deli in my neighbourhood, but it mentions a similar cafe-style chain and marks it as “blue” because the owner once said on Facebook that he saw no problem with the extradition bill.

At least this is less destructive than vandalism against business premises – and we have seen plenty of that in the last six months. Aside from being illegal, such destruction of property is hugely damaging to affected stores’ owners and staff.

The attacks are not even consistent. One chain of coffee shops – part of an established local conglomerate – has been targeted frequently because of the comments by one minority shareholder. Other chains, like one that comes under a mainland-based group, have been spared.

Malls owned by companies whose bosses are silent on the protests have suffered from activist disruption against tenants. Others with openly pro-Beijing owners have not. In a couple of cases, radicals have attacked banks that they believed – incorrectly – were mainland-based.

This is hugely unfair. For small business owners, such vandalism could be a disaster – and mobs have attacked pro-“yellow” as well as pro-“blue” premises. There can be no justification for wrecking people’s livelihoods because of their alleged or real political views.

Provided consumers do it in a peaceful and voluntary way, there is nothing illegal about boycotting some businesses or deliberately favouring others on political grounds. But it is easy to see how these guides could be abused – for example, someone with a grudge could accuse a store of being “blue” or “yellow” with no evidence. And it must be especially worrying for smaller business owners if they feel under pressure to express one opinion or another.

Some academics believe the “yellow” economy idea cannot last, as it can’t develop on a big enough scale. For the time being, however, it could still harm innocent people.

One of the apps lists a dance school, a yoga studio, a hair salon, a wedding organiser and a lighting shop as well as numerous cafes and bakeries. Behind each one is an individual or family who put money and hard work into building up a small business. Is it really fair to force them to choose sides in a political dispute they probably have little to do with?


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