After a Chinese flag was thrown into the sea, Hong Kong celebrities flex their patriotic muscles

Red flag.
Red flag.
Image: AP Photo/Vincent Thian
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As the protests in Hong Kong have raged over the past nine weeks, China’s propaganda machine has been in turbo drive, portraying those taking part as traitorous rioters trying to destabilize the country and challenge national sovereignty.

Three incidents have angered the central government in Beijing in particular: The storming of the city’s legislature on July 1, the vandalizing of Beijing’s representative office on July 21, and two related occasions when people climbed up a flagpole near the Star Ferry terminus in the Tsim Sha Tsui district to remove the Chinese national flag and dump it into Victoria Harbour.

In the wake of the flag-dumping incidents, which occurred on Aug. 3 and Aug. 5, a host of Hong Kong celebrities have heeded a call on Chinese social network Weibo to post a photo of the Chinese flag under the hashtag #The five-star red flag has 1.4 billion protectors#. Among those taking part are martial arts star Jackie Chan (link in Chinese), Pang Ho-cheung, who directed the Love in a Puff movie trilogy, and Jordan Chan, an actor best known for his starring role in the Young and Dangerous franchise of gangster movies in the 1990s. Mainland Chinese celebrities who have followed suit include actress Angelababy and actor Li Chen (link in Chinese).

It’s unclear who started the hashtag, but a post on state broadcaster CCTV’s Weibo account (link in Chinese) with it and the national flag has been reposted nearly a million times.

Angelababy's Weibo post on Aug.4 shows she supports guarding China's national flag.
Angelababy’s Weibo post on Aug. 4.
Image: Screenshot/Weibo

Beijing’s top office overseeing Hong Kong and Macau affairs, as well as the local government in Hong Kong itself, have vigorously condemned the action as an affront to the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. Former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying even announced that he would give HK$1 million ($130,000) to anybody who could identify the culprit in the first flag-dumping incident.

The protests in Hong Kong, which kicked off in mid-June in response to a much-maligned extradition bill, have now broadened in their scope to include demands for things such as universal suffrage and an investigation into alleged police brutality and misconduct. In recent weeks, protesters have escalated their tactics to include besieging and vandalizing police stations, as well as targeting symbols of Chinese rule in the city.

Speaking to media for the first time in two weeks on Monday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam made it a point to condemn the acts against symbols of sovereignty. She also said that the protest movement had “changed in substance” to become revolutionary in nature, with an aim of undermining Chinese sovereignty.

The pro-Beijing campaign on Weibo highlights the clout of the mainland Chinese marke. In Hong Kong, only a few celebrities have dared to speak out in support of Hong Kong’s protests, most notably singer Denise Ho, who is blacklisted from mainland China. Even those who have so much as “liked” a post relating to the protests have had to offer effusive public apologies after being called out by Chinese internet users. Taiwanese celebrities have also had to publicly assert their love for China, and opposition to the island’s independence, in order to maintain access to the huge mainland market.

In addition to the entertainment industry, China has been pressuring corporations to fall in line. State media has repeatedly singled out companies and brands for failing to present a tough stance against the protests, the latest being Harbour City, the mall adjacent to the spot where the flags were taken and thrown away. The mall issued a statement saying that “the national flag must be respected as it represents the dignity of the country” and stepped up security around the flagpole, according to nationalistic tabloid Global Times.

Accounting giant PwC was also criticized after some social media posts suggested that the firm encouraged employees to take part in a general strike on Monday. PwC later said it never issued a notice supporting its employees to join the strike, but the Global Times said that the response was not strong enough in its condemnation of of “violent protesters.”