From loo roll to dumplings: Hong Kong protesters weaponise purchasing power

The yellow economic circle movement aims to promote locally owned businesses and shun Chinese ones

Emily Mak works in finance but every lunchtime in the run-up to lunar new year on Saturday she heads to a bustling Hong Kong market street to distribute lai see packets to customers who have ordered them online.

Her packets red envelopes used to hold a traditional new year gift of money for children are emblazoned with pro-democracy messages. The profits of the more than 20,000 packets she has sold will be donated to young protesters experiencing hardship.

Maks packages are an example of the ways that Hong Kongers find new directions to take their struggle for democracy into the economic arena.

Across Hong Kong even staunch supporters of the pro-democracy movement are counting the cost of the months-long conflict in which police have arrested about 7,000 and fired live rounds as well as tens of thousands of rubber bullets and more than 16,000 canisters of tear gas.

Maks lai see packets are part of the emerging yellow economic circle which encourages individuals to use their consumer power to sustain the movement and weaken Chinas economic dominance.

Artist Lumli at a Chinese new year market in Hong Kong. Photograph: Verna Yu

We have to help our own people, Mak said. So many people got beaten, wounded and arrested in the protests. We cannot stop our fight.

China is the main supplier of a range of necessities in the city, from water, meat and vegetables to electronics and consumer products.

But now consumers can check lists of shops and restaurants perceived as yellow (pro-democracy) or blue (pro-government or pro-China) on mobile apps, compiled by pro-democracy supporters.

Im driven by my conscience. We dont know if it would work, but we must try, said Kevin Chan, 56, who bought lai see packets from Mak.

Adrian Kan, who participated in protests during most of the past seven months, said the injuries and arrests rendered the radical protests unsustainable and he now patronised yellow shops and joined a peaceful Lunch with you rally in the financial district of Central several times a week.

The movement has definitely changed direction, said Kan, an IT professional. We need to maintain the momentum of our struggle in our everyday life and remind people that were not alone.

Keith Poon, restaurant manager of the Trinity dumpling bistro, part of a consortium of yellow eateries called HKEconRim, said his restaurants business had soared after it joined the consortium in September. The dumplings made in his restaurant used meat from pigs bred in Hong Kong and pastry made by local shops.

Lai see envelopes emblazoned with pro-democracy messages. Photograph: Verna Yu

Its more expensive, but we want to support local industries, Poon said. Red capital has long monopolised the market. Only by patronising our local businesses will the yellow economy have bargaining power in our struggle.

Roy Tam, a pro-democracy politician, said Hong Kongs economic reliance on China had enabled Beijing to wield considerable power in its affairs, and consumer power could change that. He helped his constituents buy toilet rolls to support a local paper recycler.

Around 80% of toilet rolls sold in Hong Kong are Chinese products, he said. By forming an alliance with people who share our political views, we hope to reduce our reliance on China.

The yellow economic circle initiative was dismissed by Hong Kongs commerce and economic development secretary, Edward Yau, as an unsustainable fad and attracted the authorities wrath. A commentary in the Peoples Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist party, said: It is an insult to the word economy and a breach of basic human rights. Its barbaric, coarse and full of antisocial, anti-civilisation tendencies.

But the authorities criticism shows their fear it might just work, said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University in the US: Hong Kong and China are in an economic slowdown. The yellow economy would give a lifeline to those which show support to the movement.

He said value-driven consumerism, such as movements to encourage buying fair trade or organic products, was common around the world, as were socially responsible investment funds: If Hong Kong people can successfully transfer their protest energy into this, it could work.

Economists have said that while the yellow economy might have an impact on dining and retail sectors, it would be hard to have a presence in the citys four key industries finance, tourism, trading and logistics which are dominated by China-linked businesses.

Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Baptist University of Hong Kong, said that even if the cumulative impact on the overall economic structure might not be felt, the conscience-driven initiative was effectively a form of protest in daily life which breeds a sense of self-determination and solidarity against the government.

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