When the long arm of Hong Kong politics stretches out to include the lipstick, shampoo and deodorant that we choose, is it time to pack up our hair gel, skin cleansers, lotions, perfumes and cologne and go home, ignoring the daily political circus playing out all around us?
True, the city’s politics have long been a theatre of the absurd. Where else, for example, is every national holiday also a designated protest day? And where else do you find legislators throwing paper, fruit, water bottles and even glass at their leaders every time said leaders dare to step in front of them?
But all that makes an odd sort of sense given the profound disconnect between the powers that be in Beijing, their puppets in Hong Kong and the 7.3 million people who live in this city. After all, we are still waiting, nearly 19 years after the handover from British to Chinese rule, for Chinese leaders to deliver on their promise of democracy.
When one can no longer so much as choose an eyeshadow or moisturiser without being caught up in this sorry state of affairs, however, then things really have gone too far.
The media war involving Canto-pop diva Denise Ho Wan-see and French cosmetics giant L’Oréal shows that even the city’s signature music, long an apolitical source of mellifluous escape from the challenges of living in Hong Kong, has been tainted by our increasingly toxic political divide.
Ho jumped into that divide when the entertainer was arrested for her part in the Occupy protests of 2014 and, from Beijing’s point of view, she also demonstrated unabashed temerity in having her photo taken with the Dalai Lama—the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner labelled a violent separatist by the central government—during her visit last month to His Holiness’s headquarters in Dharamsala, India. Moreover, her openly lesbian lifestyle probably grates just a bit on the stodgy, all-male club that is the Chinese leadership.
Ho’s trouble with L’Oréal started, innocently enough, when Lancôme, a luxury perfumes and cosmetic house that is part of the L’Oréal empire, asked her to stage a free promotional concert on June 19. That request turns out to have been a supreme act of political naivety as the company soon found itself under attack by one of Beijing’s most intemperate mouthpieces, the Global Times, for choosing as its ambassador a “Hong Kong and Tibet independence advocate” whose political views an editorial characterised as “poison.” In no time, an Internet campaign to boycott all Lancôme products was fired up on the mainland, spooking Lancôme management, who then promptly and cravenly cancelled the concert.
Ho rightly called foul, and two different Internet petitions in her favour—one taken up by her Hong Kong fans and another by a retired philosophy teacher in Paris—were launched and continue to gather steam. In the name of freedom of speech and Hong Kong’s autonomy, the petitioners demand, the concert must go on.
Meanwhile, predictably, the city’s lapdog pro-Beijing media, led by the state-owned Ta Kung Pao newspaper, have teamed up to bash the singer and politicians in the pan-democratic camp have led anti-Lancôme demonstrations at store outlets across Hong Kong.
“We are all Denise Ho – say no to mainland tyranny” and “Protecting Hong Kong’s core values” are the rallying cries at these protests.
For its part, L’Oréal has reportedly offered Ho compensation for the cancelled concert but remains mum on allegations that it caved in to political pressure from the north.
The story has gone viral, with the BBC interviewing the embattled singer and sympathetic media outlets around the world spreading the narrative of yet another ham-fisted attempt by Beijing to shut up progressive voices in Hong Kong, that has once again backfired and turned into an international advertisement for the city’s stubborn refusal to give in to such crude tactics of intimidation.
What Lancôme and L’Oréal have learned at a great price from this unmitigated public-relations disaster is to tread far more carefully through the minefield of Hong Kong politics. Company executives no doubt performed a simple mathematical calculation—1.3 billion mainlanders versus the 7.3 million people living in Hong Kong—before making an easy decision: Forget Hong Kong—far greater profits lie across the border!
But they forgot to factor in the six billion people in the rest of the world standing witness to their cowardly climbdown, not to mention the power of ideas over the power of numbers.
In the end, the 39-year-old Ho can thank those who jilted her, as well as the mainland Internet trolls probably paid to trash her name, for enhancing her international profile and giving her career a needed boost.
Who knows—this could be the shot in the arm for which the whole Canto-pop industry, seemingly in irreversible decline for years, has been waiting.
So, on second thoughts, no matter whose makeup or body lotion you opt to wear or boycott, don’t give up just yet on Hong Kong culture or politics.
Sometimes Beijing’s poison turns out to be Hong Kong’s tonic.