Why Starbucks is now on Hong Kong protesters’ business boycott list

The protesters’ buck stops here.
The protesters’ buck stops here.
Image: Reuters/Joel Boh
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Early on in Hong Kong’s protest movement, the choice of where one shopped, ate, and drank quickly became a political statement. As protests have raged on well into their third month, more and more brands and companies have found themselves caught up in the political fray.

Shopping malls owned by local developer Sun Hung Kai Properties, for example, were blacklisted by protesters after it was accused of allowing riot police to enter and carry out a violent crackdown. Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain, was similarly pilloried by protesters (paywall) when its local franchise owner, a pro-Beijing businessman, voiced support for the Hong Kong government to contain fallout from a social media post that poked fun at the police.

Now Seattle coffee chain Starbucks has become an unexpected focus of protester censure.

Starbucks arrived in Hong Kong almost two decades ago, partnering with the local catering giant Maxim’s to open its first store in the city in 2000. In 2011, Maxim’s took full ownership of the franchise when it acquired Starbucks’ entire stake in the Hong Kong and Macau markets.

The protesters’ beef lies with Maxim’s.

Founded in 1956, Maxim’s rode the wave of Hong Kong’s growing middle class as the economy took off in the ’60s and ’70s, and the company’s journey through the decades charts the city’s rise from a sleepy backwater, to a manufacturing hub, to a global financial center. Today, the catering firm employs thousands through a wide range of restaurants and bakeries throughout the city, from fast-casual chains to dim sum places to higher-end eateries serving various cuisines from around the world. They also brought Shake Shack to Hong Kong in 2017.

Yet Maxim’s has also come to represent all that Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters detest: monopoly power in the city’s tycoon-dominated economy, and cosy ties with China.

Earlier this month, Annie Wu, daughter of Maxim’s founder James Tak Wu, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to present what she called a “fact-based perspective” on the Hong Kong protests, and to condemn the “small group of radical protesters” who “do not represent views of all 7.5 million Hongkongers.” Wu spoke on behalf of the Hong Kong Federation of Women, a group with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. She is also a standing committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s top advisory body.

Maxim’s has also reportedly banned its bakery staff (link in Chinese) from writing protest slogans like “Restore Hong Kong, revolution of our time” on its cakes.

Other Western brands in Hong Kong may also find themselves boycotted by protesters. McDonald’s Hong Kong and China business, for example, is 52%-owned China’s state-owned conglomerate CITIC Group.

The protests have made this a very tricky time for businesses in Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific saw its top executives forced to step down and veteran staff fired after their expressions of support for the protests angered Beijing. And the MTR, the local railway operator, which also faced a warning by Chinese state-run media after civil disobedience actions on its platforms, has lately incurred the wrath of protesters over its shutdown of stations on protest days, and scenes of police beating passengers on its platforms.

And before coming into the sights of protesters, Starbucks drew ire on Chinese social media after a barista in Hong Kong reportedly scribbled pro-democracy messages on coffee cups intended for mainland Chinese customers.