China Bullies Spanish Retailer Zara Because Hong Kong Stores Didn’t Open Fast Enough on Strike Day

A woman walks past an outlet of the fashion chain Zara in Hong Kong, 29 November 2004. Retail sales in Hong Kong, a barometer of the health of the economy, grew 8.7 percent by value in September, boosted by car sales and tourist spending, the government said in early November. …
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese “netizens” are staging another one of those boycotts and social media swarms that just happen to coincide with the political objectives of the Chinese Communist Party, this time targeting Spanish fashion retailer Zara because it allegedly supported the Hong Kong protest movement by keeping its stores closed on Monday when the protesters called for a strike.

Zara responded with the usual Western corporate declaration of fealty to China’s “one country, two systems” doctrine, which asserts Hong Kong belongs to the Communist government and will never be permitted to have independence or full democracy. 

According to China’s state-run Global Times on Tuesday, that was not good enough for the angry “netizens” swarming Zara on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter:

“It is not even an official statement as it has no official seal,” one Weibo user said. 

“Why only on Weibo? Please post an official statement on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” another net user said.

An employee surnamed Gao from the public relation department of Inditex, Zara’s parent company, told the Global Times on Tuesday afternoon that all of Zara’s 14 stores in Hong Kong opened on Monday, but some delayed their opening time over transportation issues, such as subway interruptions. 

But Global Times reporters in Hong Kong found MTR services were not significantly delayed on Monday due to effective law enforcement. Police officers deployed there arrested black-clad protesters who intentionally blocked the doors of MTR trains.  

Another department employee said four stores, including one at Harbor City, only opened at around 6pm after all staff members arrived. “We issued the notice to suspend business as we could not ensure staff members would arrive on time.”

The Global Times wrapped up by quoting a Peking University professor who advised Hong Kong business enterprises, including those owned by foreigners, to be “socially responsible instead of only pursuing profits at this crucial moment” and “manage their employees more carefully” lest they end up like Cathay Pacific, whose “lukewarm attitude in drawing the line with its radical employees” supposedly drew the ire of Chinese citizens.

Cathay’s chairman John Slosar coincidentally resigned on Wednesday, joining former CEO Rupert Hogg in political exile. Slosar is supposedly retiring, but he famously got on the wrong side of the Chinese Communist Party in July by refusing to tell Cathay’s thousands of employees what political views they should hold with regard to Hong Kong.

Zara called the whole Hong Kong situation a “misunderstanding” and insisted it has “never been involved in any strike, comments, or activities” with regard to the protest movement. Many of the responses to its widely-viewed statement castigated the company for not groveling enough or taking the opportunity to denounce the Hong Kong protest movement instead of merely insisting it does not get involved in politics.

The Global Times capitalized on these online sentiments with a thuggish editorial on Tuesday warning Zara and other foreign companies doing business in China to get their minds right and avoid “serious misjudgments” in the future. 

The editorial reminded readers that Zara was already on the Communist Party’s radar screen for listing Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan as separate countries on its website last year, a transgression the Chinese government has been forcing foreign companies to apologize for and correct by threatening to regulate or terminate their access to Chinese markets if they refuse.

The Global Times editorial pilloried Zara for being too slow to embrace the Communist Party’s framing of the Hong Kong crisis as a clash between violent extremist rioters working for foreign powers and patriots who “love Hong Kong and the mainland,” the term China uses for the legally recognized territory of China. According to the Global Times:

Why did some Zara stores in Hong Kong close for a day at such a sensitive time? There are reasons to question this. Zara has not taken active steps to eliminate this doubt quickly. Objectively, it has formed some kind of response expected by the extremist forces. The attitude of Zara is not in line with the collective efforts of Hong Kong society to stop violence and restore order.

Benefited from stability and prosperity around the world, Zara has become a global brand. It has reaped the benefits of peace and progress in Hong Kong and Chinese mainland over the years. The current turmoil in Hong Kong threatens the fundamental interests of the Hong Kong people and has also brought trouble to Chinese mainland society. Zara has the responsibility to clearly respond to the efforts of Hong Kong society to stop violence. It should not be seen as suspicious.

Yet Zara’s performance has been disappointing. It is true that big companies sometimes face dual pressures when the political controversy intensifies. But that’s not the reason why Zara closed the store in Hong Kong on Monday. There are so many international brands and chain stores in Hong Kong. Zara is the first internationally famous brand suspected of catering to the three strikes campaign. Whatever the reason, it has set a very negative example. 

One cannot help but conclude that the management of Zara Hong Kong, or at least some of its stores, is willing to echo the three strikes. They are even willing to make a special show of it. They probably think that some of the risk is worth it.

Writing at The Street on Tuesday, Alex Frew McMillan saw Zara as the latest victim of China’s “white terror” in Hong Kong, a campaign of  “indirect or anonymous attacks designed to create a climate of fear over the demonstrations.”

McMillan predicted the “white terror” attack on Zara was “weird enough that it should backfire,” but advised Western businessmen to look long and hard at how China is using economic leverage to enforce its political decrees on foreign corporations.

“I think we are nearing the point where investors holding the shares of Chinese companies will have to make a call. Are they going to continue to invest in companies supporting an increasingly authoritarian and ruthless regime?” he asked.

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