Fundraising tote bags destined for the Hong Kong Free Press online merch store were held up in China over “sensitive” wording. The totes feature an exclusive design by Chinese dissident Badiucao, with a stylised play on the Chinese character for “free,” in reference to press freedom.

A spokesperson for the supplier told HKFP that had never had any trouble with goods being imported from China before: “Even during the Umbrella Movement, the company didn’t encounter such barriers when printing related-designs and slogans. Normally customs only check whether goods correspond to the declared goods – [but] now that they’re interpreting the printed content, we feel surprised and helpless.”

hkfp merch

They added that they believed the issue was related to the current political crisis and protests in Hong Kong, with the mainland customs authorities enforcing stricter controls. The firm said it may reject future orders on sensitive topics but assisted HKFP in fulfilling the order by using multiple packages and specialist couriers.

Badiucao, who was commissioned to design the bags, said the incident was a kind of metaphor: “China can only export oppression like the ‘torture chair’ for the show I was forced to cancel in Hong Kong last year, but definitely not bags with ‘freedom’ printed on them.”

Badiucao managed to import a “tiger chair” last year to the HKFP office, which is currently being held in storage.

China's Artful Dissident badiucao
Badiucao. Photo: China’s Artful Dissident.

“There is no freedom inside China, so how can it export freedom to other places? Makes a lot sense,” he added.

In January, a factory in mainland China allegedly received a government order banning them from printing merchandise with certain words and images, including the name and logo of Hong Kong pro-democracy group Demosisto.

Demosisto tote bag
Demosisto’s tote bag. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The bags featured the slogan “Don’t be a Kong pig” – Cantonese slang meaning people who hate politics and avoid getting into public affairs.

HKFP is working with the supplier to find a way to import the bags, or manufacture new ones. HKFP’s Badiucao mugs arrived safely after being manufactured in Hong Kong.

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Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.