A billboard in Melbourne has sparked backlash online for spreading Chinese Communist Party “propaganda” about Hong Kong.
The ad in Carlton, featured on a billboard owned by French advertising giant JCDecaux, was spotted by a local who posted a photo to online forum Reddit on Tuesday.
“Is this billboard on the corner of Alexander Parade and Nicholson Street CCP propaganda?” they wrote.
The ad promoting the 25th anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China features the tagline, “A New Era – Stability. Prosperity. Opportunity.”
China took back control of the former colony on July 1, 1997 after 156 years of British rule with the promise to maintain the island’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle of government.
But in recent years the CCP has tightened its grip on the region, culminating in Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in 2020 that was condemned by western governments and sparked widespread protests.
“Being from Hong Kong, 28 [years] of my life, yes this is a new era – under CCP’s utter control, there is no separation of powers, no more freedom of speech and press, freedom to question and doubt,” one Reddit user replied.
Record numbers of expats and locals have fled Hong Kong since Beijing started its crackdown, with more than 140,000 people leaving in the first quarter of this year alone.
Hong Kong’s population shrunk by about 23,600 in 2021, Bloomberg reported in March.
The billboard points to a government website promoting this year’s anniversary celebrations, which features a message from Hong Kong chief executive John Lee – the former security chief who oversaw the brutal crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
Mr Lee, who was the sole candidate approved by China in this year’s election, is one of 11 officials sanctioned by the US in 2020 for his role in undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“As we witness the steadfast and successful implementation of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ ensured by the Hong Kong National Security Law and the improved electoral system, the celebrations will further showcase the brighter future of Hong Kong embracing the national development through leveraging our unique strengths under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and the unwavering support of the Central Government,” the message from Mr Lee reads.
“The next five years will be the pivotal moments of Hong Kong’s development towards governance and prosperity. As we celebrate the joyful occasion commemorating Hong Kong’s return to the Motherland, I am fully confident of a promising future where we, under the auspices of our country, can give full play to our unique strengths under ‘One Country, Two Systems’. Let’s start a new chapter for Hong Kong together!”
In June, similar ads promoting the 25th anniversary were pulled from trams in Belgium after complaints from the public about Beijing’s human rights record.
Brussels’ public transport operator withdrew the ads within 24 hours, the South China Morning Post reported at the time.
“We were warned by a few customers … that it was not as it should be,” Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company (STIB) spokeswoman An Van Hamme told the outlet.
“STIB has a publicity charter which stipulates, among other things, that no publicity may be disseminated with political connotations.”
She said the ads were pulled as they were determined to be “political messaging”.
In Australia, the advertising industry is self-regulated, with complaints from the public adjudicated by the Ad Standards board.
The Australian Association of National Advertisers code of ethics does not prohibit political messaging.
“Ad Standards has received a very small number of complaints in relation to the Hong Kong 25th Anniversary billboard raising concerns about political propaganda,” a spokeswoman told news.com.au.
“While the advertising codes we administer cover a wide range of issues, political advertising is outside of our remit.”
JCDecaux has been contacted for comment.
It comes after Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong aired her concerns over China’s governance of Hong Kong earlier this year on the eve of the anniversary.
Senator Wong said she was “deeply concerned” about the freedoms of Hong Kong citizens to oppose decisions by China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also headed to Hong Kong to mark the occasion — his first time travelling outside the mainland since the start of the pandemic.
Official messaging by Chinese authorities was characteristically positive, however the milestone opened recent wounds of the violent protests in 2019 and 2020 that led to authoritarian clampdowns by Beijing.
“Australia remains deeply concerned by the continuing erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and autonomy, two years since the imposition of the National Security Law,” Senator Wong said.
“The National Security Law has been applied broadly to arrest or pressure pro-democracy figures, opposition groups, the media, trade unions and civil society. The electoral reforms imposed by Beijing in 2021 have further eroded Hong Kong’s democratic governance.”
President Xi, along with other officials, has insisted Hong Kong is better off now with the ruling structure in place.
However many observers say it has eroded Hong Kong’s unique independence and seen the arrest and imprisonment of dissidents.
“After the storms, Hong Kong has been reborn of fire and emerged with robust vitality,” President Xi said.
“It can guarantee long-term stability and prosperity in Hong Kong, and defend the wellbeing of Hong Kong people.”
Ignoring China’s urgings for other countries to stay out of what it considers to be internal, sovereign matters, Senator Wong drew upon Hong Kong’s many successes since the handover to call for the preservation of liberties.
“We urge the Chinese government and Hong Kong authorities to uphold and protect those elements which have been so crucial to Hong Kong’s success, including its high degree of autonomy, the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law and the Sino-British Declaration, to which Beijing committed,” she said.
“We reaffirm the importance of those freedoms that have enabled its prosperity and stability.”
— with NCA NewsWire