There is a long list of businesses that have suddenly fallen from grace in China for offending the nation’s sensibilities: the NBA, luxury giants like Givenchy and Versace, fast-fashion retailer H&M, and the US gaming company Blizzard Entertainment, to name just a few.
Now add to that list a drinks giant famous for its soy milk.
Vitasoy, a venerable Hong Kong company, is facing calls from Chinese citizens for a boycott of its drinks after it expressed “deepest condolences” to the family of a deceased employee, who died last Thursday (July 1) after stabbing a Hong Kong police officer before turning the knife on himself. The memo, issued only internally, had explicitly not passed judgement on the stabbing incident, but simply offered sympathies and provided a hotline for any staff needing psychological assistance in reaction to the news. On Hong Kong social media, commenters praised Vitasoy for its “human” response.
But controversy quickly ensued as Chinese consumers appeared to interpret Vitasoy’s statement as an expression of support for the assailant, whom Hong Kong’s security chief labeled a “lone wolf” terrorist within hours of the stabbing, which occurred on the anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China.
This sent Vitasoy scrambling to implement damage control. It put out a new statement on July 2 saying it “fully supports” the Hong Kong national security police’s investigation into the attack, as well as Hong Kong’s “stability, prosperity, and development.” It followed up with another statement the next day, condemning the initial internal memo for being “extremely inappropriate” and saying it retains the right to take legal action against the employee who sent out the unauthorized memo.
But as is often the case, the momentum driving calls for a boycott had already taken on a life of its own and was difficult to put back in the bottle. It was fueled by high-profile posts from celebrities like the Chinese actor Gong Jun, who announced he was cutting all commercial ties (link in Chinese) with Vitasoy. Another actor, Ren Jialun, also announced he was ceasing all cooperation with the firm, according to state tabloid Global Times. On Chinese social media platform Weibo, videos appeared to show people removing cartons and bottles of Vitasoy products from shelves. One post, which simply said “Will you still drink Vitasoy in the future?,” racked up over 160,000 likes.
The stabbing, suicide, and Hong Kong’s reaction to it have quickly become a fresh flashpoint with Beijing after citizens dressed in black—a color also associated with the 2019 protests—began leaving flowers at the site of the attack on the police officer, who was sent to hospital in critical condition.
The Hong Kong police force’s national security department has since taken over the case, and officers have been deployed to stand guard at the site of the attack to prevent mourners from laying flowers for the deceased assailant. The government has condemned mourners for “beautifying” violence and said such memorials were akin to supporting terrorism.
A national boycott, if it were to materialize at scale and be sustained, would be hugely damaging to Vitasoy. Last year, the mainland Chinese market accounted for 71% of the firm’s revenue and and an even greater share of its profits, according to the firm’s latest financial report (pdf). Investors are already fearing that scenario, as shares of Vitasoy, listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange, plunged over 10% today.
As Vitasoy charts its next move, it may look at H&M for a somber prognosis. The Swedish fashion giant saw its sales in China slump 23% last quarter, after it became a target of a Chinese boycott over the company’s statement on alleged human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang.