The Hong Kong marathon’s chief sponsor Standard Chartered has declined to state whether it supports free speech in the city after organisers warned runners not to wear political attire.

Photo: CitizenNews.

On Sunday, several Standard Chartered marathon runners were targeted by police and made to cover tattoos – or change clothing – bearing slogans such as “come on Hong Kong,” or – literally – “Hong Kong add oil.”

The ubiquitous phrase is used widely to denote encouragement, though was also popular during the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest.

Citizen News reported on how one woman was escorted to booth by police and told her “Hong Kong, add oil!” shorts were a “political outfit.” Another man was told to remove a shirt bearing the same slogan, according to HK01.

When asked if Standard Chartered supported free speech in Hong Kong, a spokesperson for the British bank said they “have no comment on this.”

The bank equally would not comment on whether it would support runners targeted by police, or whether it would sponsor the event next year.

2021 standard chartered marathon
Photo: Carrie Lam via Facebook.

Hong Kong police did not directly address reports involving the slogan, in response to an AFP enquiry: “If the event organiser encounters situations that damage social peace and violate the law, they can seek help from police. During this event, police did not receive any reports,” the force said in a statement.

“This is a sports event and we do not wish to see any political element,” William Ko, the marathon organising committee’s chair, said during a press conference after the race. He cut short the press event after being repeatedly asked about the slogan.

Standard Chartered
Standard Chartered. File photo: Can Pac Swire, via Flickr CC2.0.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

In a statement last June, Standard Chartered said it believed “the national security law can help maintain the long term economic and social stability of Hong Kong.”

Last month, a group of British lawmakers are launching a “full international inquiry” into British banks in Hong Kong to establish whether some may have contributed to “suppression” in the city.

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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.