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How Hong Kong’s Protests Are Roiling the World’s Booming Bubble Tea Market

Globally-adored bubble tea made headlines this month as Chinese consumers threatened to boycott brands they accused of supporting the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The political drama is still brewing, and last week it crossed the Pacific.

At the Toronto branch of Answer Tea, a chain famous for its “printable cheese mousse,” customer Dan Seljak-Byrne ordered a lychee passionfruit white tea on Saturday, expecting his drink to come with a cheery illustration of Pikachu. Instead, the cheese mousse topping featured a charged political message printed in English and Chinese that Seljak-Byrne photographed and tweeted out. It read: “I (heart) HK, I (heart) CHINA” and “I, too, support HK Police.”  

"My bubble tea is...pro cop??" he asked.

Bubble tea, a sweet beverage that can be milky or fruity, originated in Taiwan, a region the government in Beijing considers a renegade province. But the drink has become hugely popular on China’s mainland too. The patriotic overtures of Answer Tea, which was founded in the mainland city of Zhengzhou, come amidst worldwide demonstrations of both support for and hostility towards the Hong Kong protests, which show no sign of subsiding after three months.

Mainland China’s market for “non-traditional tea products”—drinks like bubble tea and cheese mousse tea—had estimated sales of between $5.7 billion and $7.1 billion in 2018, according to an analysis by Citic Securities. The Chinese Tea Marketing Association says mainland consumers bought 210 million orders of milk tea through mainland delivery service Meituan-Dianping last year—and that number doesn’t account for the millions of in-store purchases from tea chains across China.  

With its cheese foam message, Answer Tea took up arms in a worldwide battle of bubble tea chains. 

The bubble battle

In recent weeks, brands that appear to express support for Hong Kong’s protesters have found themselves the target of online backlash and even boycott threats from mainland Chinese social media users, whose consumer movements in the past have wrought heavy damage in other sectors.

Many of the most prominent bubble tea chains, including Coco Fresh Tea & Juice and Yifang Fruit Tea, are Taiwanese. Those two franchises are struggling to distance themselves from controversy after online boycott threats from Chinese Internet users, who accused them of supporting the Hong Kong protesters. The accusations followed social media circulation of a photo of a Yifang branch with a pro-Hong Kong sign and a photo of a Coco receipt that included pro-Hong Kong text.

Coco and Yifang are hugely dependent on mainland consumers. Both companies issued official statements denying the allegations and affirming their support for “one country, two systems.”

CHINA-HONG KONG-POLITICS-CRIME-TAIWAN-BOYCOTT
Bubble tea shops like Coco are getting caught in the cross-fire of Hong Kong's pro-democracy unrest. (GREG BAKER—AFP/Getty Images)
Greg Baker—AFP/Getty Images

“The Hong Kong region is an inseparable part of the People’s Republic of China,” read Coco’s statement on Weibo, a Chinese social media site with around 195 million daily active users.

Weibo users have called for boycotts against other Taiwanese bubble tea chains like Gong Cha and A Little Tea. After being singled out, Gong Cha issued a hasty social media statement in support of “One China” and “One country, two systems.”

Coco also was accused of supporting Taiwan’s independence based on screenshots from its website listing Taiwan as a country. It said that the screenshots were fake. 

For Taiwanese companies, avoiding the ire of mainland consumers can be especially tricky. While the People's Republic of China maintains an official "One China" policy that includes Taiwan, that policy is highly contested in Taiwan, which in practice has administered its own affairs since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army retreated to the island and seized control in 1949. Taiwan has evolved into a thriving and boisterous multi-party democracy, whose 22 million residents are overwhelmingly sympathetic to Hong Kong.

Budding competition

To complicate matters, Taiwan’s bubble tea chains face fierce competition from upstart mainland rivals like HeyTea and Answer Tea. Answer Tea, launched in 2017, has over 500 stores worldwide, and has no problem flexing its patriotic muscles: a day after the Coco statement came out, Answer Tea Canada posted a captionless photo of the Chinese flag on its Instagram account. Answer Tea could not be reached for comment.

Yifang Fruit Tea, which has around 200 stores in mainland China, appears somewhat split over the Hong Kong protests after one of its branches there closed for a day in solidarity with striking protesters. Yifang’s mainland distributor later released a Weibo statement affirming support for “one country, two systems;” its Taiwanese distributor followed suit and condemned any Hong Kong franchise that supported the protests.

The company’s Hong Kong distributor stood its ground, declaring in a Facebook post that it is independently operated, respects the political beliefs of the individual Hong Kong branches, and believes accommodating multiple opinions to be “a core value of Hong Kong people.”  

Hong Kong protesters, meanwhile, have threatened boycotts of their own. Some are planning a campaign called “Bye Buy Day” that targets pro-Beijing businesses. Organizers compiled a comprehensive, color-coded map of businesses in Hong Kong. Gray and green denote pro-protester businesses, while red and orange represent pro-Beijing establishments.

The widely-circulated map denoting businesses that are pro-Hong Kong protesters or pro-Beijing. (Screenshot of Google maps)

But most pinpoints are green or red; hardly any are gray, the color identifying businesses that “truly love Hong Kong.” The map marks “All Yifang branches outside of Hong Kong” in red, and all “Yifang Hong Kong branches” in gray.

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