The Hong Kong government has earmarked HK$226.6 million for managing its foreign public relations, but a pro-democracy activist and local PR experts have questioned whether the increased budget would be effective in rebuilding the city’s international image without other practical measures in place.

According to the 2020 budget announced by Finance Chief Paul Chan last month, the government plans to ramp up its PR efforts outside of Hong Kong by 53.5 per cent. The budget boost will be used to promote a “favourable image” of the city internationally and on the mainland.

World Day of Human Rights Rally December 8 2019
World Day of Human Rights Rally on December 8, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The publicity work will be carried out by the Information Services Department (ISD), who said Hong Kong will be advertised as “Asia’s world city,” by highlighting its role as a regional business, financial and cultural hub.

“Also highlighted are the city’s strengths as a cosmopolitan, well-connected, dynamic and diverse city with world-class talent and infrastructure, and the growing emphasis on quality living and conservation of nature and heritage,” the ISD wrote in their budget.

The department said that the city’s external image had been affected by the large-scale protests which erupted last June over a now-withdrawn extradition bill. The unrest has raised concerns over Hong Kong’s stable environment underpinned by the rule of law, the department said.

august 31 may james china extradition best of
Photo: May James/HKFP.

“More efforts will be made on publicity work and other measures to counter negative perceptions in key markets and rebuild international confidence in Hong Kong,” it wrote.

Last September, the Hong Kong government spent HK$7.4 million on a global advertising campaign in a bid to reassure foreign investors that the city remained “welcoming and free” despite months of demonstrations. In January, Brand Hong Kong – the government body in charge of the city’s global branding – shared an anti-protest video on Twitter, claiming that tensions in Hong Kong were “inflamed by rampant fake news.”

The move came after protesters crowdfunded multiple ad campaigns to call for international attention on the demonstrations and urge the global community to take action. The ads had were printed in local language across different countries, including in The New York Times in the US, Nihon Keizai Shimbun in Japan, Frankfurter Allgemeine in Germany and Le Monde in France.

newspaper ads Hong Kong protest
Photo: LIHKG.

In an Apple Daily’s report on Monday, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said he and his political group Demosisto would rely on international networking to lobby support, despite the government’s PR budget boost.

Wong said he had been interviewed by media outlets from over 30 countries, while Demosisto members are developing a channel on YouTube. He questioned the effectiveness of the spending: “I have 514,429 followers on Twitter, while Brand Hong Kong only has 4,500. I don’t really know where they have spent their money,” he said.

Joshua Wong
Joshua Wong in the US. Photo: Joshua Wong, via Facebook.

Andy Ho, an information coordinator for former chief executive Donald Tsang, said he had heard complaints from those working in the government’s publicity department.

“You want me to promote Hong Kong? What’s so difficult about it? But for it to work, you need to give me something to promote,” Ho said, quoting some ISD staff members.

Ho added the government’s advertising efforts would be “like water off a duck’s back”

“[The government] should do pragmatic things first. If you can’t even convince Hongkongers, how can you persuade foreigners?” Ho asked.

Hung Hom Tsim Sha Tsui protest China extradition pro-democracy "December 1" Salisbury Garden Road
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Another PR expert, Miranda Shing, told Apple Daily that news platforms across the globe had been broadcasting the negative situation in Hong Kong, therefore it would be very difficult for the government to try and reverse that image now. She added that practical measures such as tax and rent reductions would be more effective in attracting businesses.

Yiu Koon-tung, a spokesperson for the Advertising Civilian group who organised a sector-wide strike in last December, urged the government to face its problems instead of trying to salvage the city’s image through advertising.

“If I’m selling you a piece of crap, how many advertisements do I have to place in order to get you to eat it?” Yiu asked.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.