How will Hong Kong's brand reputation recover from a long summer of violent discontent?

The city’s much-vaunted institutions and infrastructure appear to be in inexorable decline.

Weighed against all that Hong Kong has lost during this long, furious summer of discontent — faith in our leaders, our institutions and our future — a vacuous marketing slogan would seem to be the least of our worries. Yet as prolonged unrest persists into its fourteenth, turbulent week, there is little doubt that the iconic city's reputation as 'Asia’s World City’ has taken a battering it will struggle to recover from.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Hongkongers are a famously sceptical bunch. So the ‘Asia's World City’ tagline, conceived in 2001, has not escaped mockery from its own citizens over the years. After all, how can a brand promise possibly hope to distil the manner in which Hong Kong’s fortunes have stagnated during the past decade?

That it has persisted is down to Hong Kong’s essential strengths, rather than any marketing wizardry. A vibrant economic centre, fueled by a tireless, entrepreneurial workforce, underpinned by world-class infrastructure, the rule of law and its enviable location in the Pearl River Delta.

One by one, each of those fundamentals has faced immense pressure in recent years. The city’s much-vaunted institutions and infrastructure appear to be in inexorable decline. Innovation, once a byword for Hong Kong’s economic power, seems to have bypassed the city completely in favour of other Asian destinations like Singapore and Taipei — foiled as much by poor political vision as by a cabal of business interests that effectively preclude the possibility of genuine competition.

And as every pragmatic marketer will be aware, a brand promise is only as good as the reality it claims to represent. Hong Kong’s global reputation is now tainted by alarming scenes of police brutality and masked protestors. International media coverage focuses on the sheer depth of opposition towards the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms under Chinese rule. Every Sinophile with a Twitter account likes to prognosticate about how economic opportunities for youngsters have dried up, while the holy grail of affordable housing remains more elusive than ever.

To put it mildly, these are not conditions that are especially conducive to a positioning that relies on social stability and economic opportunity, no matter how hard the city’s advertising tries to pretend otherwise. But they do reflect the wanton negligence that characterises Hong Kong’s leadership over the past two decades. Rather than treating ‘Asia’s World City’ as a non-negotiable standard of excellence, (or even a ‘purpose’, to use the more fashionable nomenclature) Hong Kong’s leaders have slowly frittered away all of its unique blessings — serving as complicit accessories to the SAR's presumable fate of becoming "just another Chinese city".

That disregard has only seemed to swell during the current crisis. Chief executive Carrie Lam’s communications are listless and littered with missteps. A leaked recording conveniently offers a more human dimension to her woes, but only underlines the notion that Lam reserves her emotional intelligence for the city’s billionaires and Beijing, rather than ordinary citizens. Protestors are routinely, relentlessly demonised, reflecting the divisive rhetoric that undermines any notion of accountability.

Lam’s 'open dialogue platform’ was accompanied by a marked escalation in violence. Yet while the sight of protestors lobbing Molotov cocktails would appear to risk their prolonged hold over public opinion, daily videos of police brutality serve as an inflammatory counterpoint — a notably counterproductive strategy towards winning hearts and minds.

The chief executive’s latest gambit was to finally withdraw the extradition bill after 88 days of unrest that have left Hong Kong reeling. But there is little to suggest that Lam will either address the damage she has wrought or consider the protest movement’s demands for an independent inquiry. While the city burns and youngsters are rounded up in their hundreds, Lam remains enduringly tone deaf, leaving the media to ponder the futility of more promises as trust in government plummets.

It is a curious crisis management strategy, serving only to reinforce the notion that ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is also — ironically — just another marketing slogan. Maybe Hongkongers are tired of these taglines. Or perhaps, as with 'Asia’s World City', we need one that more accurately reflects the city’s new reality.

It is not as if the raw materials do not exist. The protest movement’s use of technology, visual content and humour suggest a level of agility that puts Hong Kong’s startups, not to mention its leaden-footed business community, to shame. With better leadership and policies, it is not impossible to envisage a situation where this level of resourcefulness and passion are more productively harnessed.

Ultimately, Hong Kong’s exceptional global reputation has been 180-odd years in the making, forged through blood, sweat and — as we know only too well — tears. It is this resilience, rather than trite taglines, that will shape the city’s brand in the years to come.

Arun Sudhaman is chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of The Holmes Report. He is a Hong Kong resident of 40 years.

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