Australia

Why these billboards promoting a ‘new era’ for Hong Kong are so contentious

Hongkongers in Melbourne and Sydney have called out a series of advertisements marking the 25th anniversary of Britain’s handover of the city to Beijing as political propaganda and want them removed.
The billboards, which are identical in nature, showcase a majestic view of the financial hub. They’ve been spotted in Sydney and Melbourne.
On each of them is plastered the words “A New Era,” and the words “stability,” “prosperity” and “opportunity” with a link to what appears to be Hong Kong government-controlled website.
Similar ads are a common sight in Hong Kong as the Chinese government this year celebrated the half-way point of the “one country, two systems” model of governance, due to expire in 2047.

The appearance of the billboards has sparked a backlash from the Hong Kong community.

The billboards, which are identical in nature, showcase a majestic view of Hong Kong. They’ve been spotted in Sydney and Melbourne. Source: Supplied

Joe (not his real name), a Victoria Hongkongers Association representative, spoke to SBS News on the condition of anonymity because he fears for the safety of his loved ones who reside in Hong Kong.

He said the Association has received more than 15 complaints from Hongkongers based in Melbourne.
“We think it’s a propaganda piece which completely misrepresents the current state of the city,” he said.
“After the introduction of the National Security law, many people have left the city as they have seen their rights and freedoms disappear and seeing these billboards is a brutal reminder that what has become of their beloved city.”
The not-for-profit association submitted a formal complaint, seen by SBS News, to self-regulation body Ad Standards, arguing the billboards contravened Ad Standards’ Code of Ethics, on the basis they are discriminatory against the Hong Kong diaspora on account of political belief.

Another community group, Australia-Hong Kong Link has also lodged a formal complaint.

Earlier this week, Greens leader Adam Bandt called for the billboards to be taken down.

He said on Twitter he was “disturbed to see a billboard in my electorate glorifying Hong Kong’s supposed ‘new era’ after the brutal crackdown on democracy activists and civil society.”

Erosion of Rights

The city of more than 7 million people was returned to China from the United Kingdom in 1997, with promises of wide-ranging freedoms and autonomy under “one country, two systems” governance.
But critics, including some Western governments, say Beijing has reneged on those promises in recent years under sweeping security law.
Authorities in Hong Kong and China reject those claims.
Benjamin Herscovitch, a research fellow at the Australian National University, told SBS News the advertising was “papering over a huge amount of ongoing political repression and is seeking to provide a glossy overlay over what has been a few years of the steady erosion of Hong Kong’s rights.”
“I think the Hong Kong administration is aware that in Australia, the country’s brand has nosedived, given all of the violence, the protests, the heavy-handed police response and so this is aimed at providing a bit of a veneer of respectability,” he said.

SBS News has received confirmation that the billboards were ordered by the Hong Kong government through its Economic and Trade Office based in Sydney. The office also confirmed that a total of 14 advertisements have been commissioned across Sydney and Melbourne in the month of August.

Advertising laws the ‘wild west’

Advertising and marketing expert Dr Andrew Hughes told SBS News such advertising will not fall foul of any Australian laws or codes.
“We’ve seen a lot of examples in the past where minority groups have been offended by content and ads, and yet nothing can be done, because the ad itself doesn’t breach any guidelines and this is just another example.
“Australian advertising laws, particular in relation to political advertising is too loose, it’s like the Wild West.”

Ad Standards told SBS News in a statement that while “we understand some members of the community may find this billboard offensive, this type of content falls outside our jurisdiction.”

A man wearing a hooded jumper looking away from the camera at Melbourne's CBD.

Joe (not his real name), a Victoria Hongkongers Association representative who spoke to SBS News on the condition of anonymity, said the Association has received more than 15 complaints about the billboards from Hongkongers based in Melbourne. Source: Supplied

The organisation said “Australia’s advertising self-regulation system is designed to regulate commercial marketing, and advertising of products and services” and doesn’t cover political advertising.

It also said it has received a “small number” of complaints about these billboards.
Outdoor advertising giant, JCDecaux which displays the billboards, said: “Before publishing, the content of the advert was reviewed by JCDecaux against the relevant industry codes and guidelines for the outdoor media industry.
“It meets the relevant policies in relation to outdoor advertising.”
In June, similar ads were pulled from trams in Belgium after complaints about Beijing’s human rights record.

SBS News has contacted the Chinese Embassy in Canberra for comment.

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