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University students wearing Guy Fawkes masks pose for a photoshoot of a graduation ceremony to support anti-government protests at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in Hong Kong, China October 30, 2019.
Reuters/Tyrone Liu
Remember, remember.
HIDDEN IRONY

Your “V for Vendetta” protest mask was likely made in authoritarian China

By Jane Li, Mary Hui, Tripti Lahiri & Adam Rasmi

The last few years have been good ones for the smiling mask made famous by V for Vendetta, the 2005 movie about an anarchist who blows up the UK parliament to destroy a fascist tyranny. The mask is a tribute to Guy Fawkes, a celebrated underdog who is remembered every year for trying and failing to do the same in 1605—in the film’s finale, brave citizens come out en masse wearing the mask. Since then, it’s become a favored prop of protesters around the world, including the anti-capitalism protesters of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street and members of the hacking group Anonymous.

The British artist who created the image of the mask for a graphic novel told the BBC he welcomed how it has become a symbol of individual freedom.

“The Guy Fawkes mask has now become a common brand and a convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny—and I’m happy with people using it. It seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way,” said David Lloyd in 2011.

In the surge of protests around the world recently, the mask has been seen everywhere from Hong Kong to Catalonia to Ecuador to Lebanon. It will likely be even more visible as Hong Kong puts on a Halloween masquerade to protest a mask ban on Oct. 31, and Anonymous organizes its now-annual “million mask march” on Nov. 5, which is Guy Fawkes Night in Britain.

But where does the product come from? The answer is lots of places—but China, where public dissent is heavily suppressed, appears to be a major manufacturer and exporter of the masks.

The protest-mask supply chain

New York-based Rubie’s Costume Company, which licenses the right to sell the mask from copyright owner WarnerMedia, in 2016 had contracts with 12 factories in China, accounting for 70% of its production that year, according to a Bloomberg report. At the time, the costume seller was making half of all Halloween costumes sold in the US, where it also owns four factories.

According to the New York Times, as of 2011 it was Rubie’s best-selling mask, with over 100,000 of them sold a year, compared to just 5,000 or so for other kinds of masks. It’s impossible to know how many additional thousands are sold by counterfeit producers. (The costume maker, which also has a showroom for wholesale buyers in Hong Kong, didn’t reply to questions for this story.)

Rubies' V for Vendetta offerings. Screenshot on Oct. 30, 2019.
Rubies.com screenshot
Rubies’ V for Vendetta offerings.

It’s possible Chinese manufacturers gained customers as protesters rallying against corporate greed searched for alternatives to the licensed version. A 2011 CNN story quoted some British demonstrators as saying they were starting to order knock-off masks from Asian suppliers.

V for Vendetta masks on Amazon.
Screenshot
V for Vendetta masks on Amazon.

A well-rated seller of the mask on Amazon.com, where it typically fetches $3 to $12, confirmed that the product it sells in the US is made in China. The vendor also said that purchases were being limited to 50 units per order, due to limited availability at the moment.

V for Vendetta mask sold on a Taobao shop
Screenshot
A V for Vendetta mask sold in a Taobao shop is at the high end of the range. The masks can sell for as little as 6 yuan, or less than $1.

Quartz tracked down dozens of sellers of the mask on Chinese e-commerce sites, which source the products from manufacturers based in central Zhejiang province, Shenzhen in southern Guangdong province, and other traditional manufacturing hubs. While many of the Taobao shops appear to cater to domestic sales, three shops Quartz reached out to expressing interest in purchasing the mask said that they also sell the item overseas. They did not disclose how large a portion overseas sales account for.

Of course, given that the mask is relatively easy to copy and make, it doesn’t only come from China. A Reuters photographer captured them being mass produced at a factory near Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2013.

From China to Lebanon

A demonstrator wears a mask during an anti-government protest in the southern city of Nabatiyeh, Lebanon October 22, 2019
Reuters/Aziz Taher
Protesting Lebanon’s economic crisis.

In Lebanon, the mass protests against government corruption and inequality that began earlier this month led to this week’s resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri. In Beirut, an assortment of tents covered everything from legal and administrative assistance to pop-up stands with a range of goods on offer—food, beverages, sheesha, and protest masks.

Near Martyr’s Square, the epicenter of the Beirut protests, a vendor who was selling a plastic variety of the Guy Fawkes masks told Quartz he has been selling about 50 or 60 a day since the protests began. “This mask comes from Yiwu [in Zhejiang]. We import them, and they go to a number of countries, not just Lebanon,” he added, asking not to be named.

The similar Salvador Dali mask has also been popular with protesters, and seems to come from China as well.

“We got them generally for the protests…they come in different and various shapes, but they all come from China,” said Imad Azzam, a Beiruti who set up shop downtown, and who was selling rubber varieties of the Salvador Dali mask. Azzam said he imports the goods, but could not identify the company that manufactures them from their packaging. “The writing on them is in Chinese,” he said. (The items themselves, which are on display in clear plastic, do not list manufacturing details.)

In Hong Kong, looking for alternatives

China appears to be trying to squeeze the supply of these masks, at least to Hong Kong protesters. A Taobao shop that ranks among those with the highest sales volume for these masks on the e-commerce platform has a notice up on its page saying it cannot deliver V for Vendetta masks to southern China and Hong Kong right now “because of the riot in Hong Kong.” “This is an order from the police bureau. Now every mask shop in Zhejiang cannot deliver the items to the two places,” a customer service rep for the shop told Quartz. “But we can deliver to other Chinese provinces, and abroad, including the US.”

People in Hong Kong have been trying to figure out where to get the mask, as protesters and police prepare for a masquerade march on Halloween against a mask ban Hong Kong issued this month hoping to quell months of demonstrations against what many fear is China’s encroachment on the city’s freedoms and identity. There will also be a masked protest on the one-month anniversary of the ban, on Nov. 5.

On LIHKG, a local online forum and informal protest hub, there are multiple threads from the past several weeks, with people asking where they can purchase the masks. “Does anyone know where to buy V for Vendetta masks?” asks one thread. “Sham Shui Po is out of V for Vendetta masks!!!!!!!!!!!” exclaimed another, referring to a neighborhood in Hong Kong. Some online sellers are still offering the mask, with one telling Quartz they sourced the product from Vietnam. The online shops also warn buyers about how to protect their anonymity while making the purchase.

There are even online tutorials for making the mask on your own, including a YouTube video and one template with labeled components and creases to fold along. For the less handy, there’s a simple printout that protestors can cut around and affix to their faces.