Hong Kong's overseas plans to celebrate the anniversary of the city's handover to China have been derailed, with Brussels' public transport operator pulling commemorative tram advertising following complaints about Beijing's human rights record.
Two trams were set to traverse the Belgian capital between June 7 and August 29, bearing the slogan "A New Era - Stability. Prosperity. Opportunity", to mark the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule.
But just 24 hours into the arrangement the advertising was pulled, the city's representatives in Brussels confirmed.
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"We were warned by a few customers ... that it was not as it should be," said An Van Hamme, a spokeswoman for Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company (STIB-MIVB, or STIB), adding that complaints had emerged on social media.
"STIB has a publicity charter which stipulates, among other things, that no publicity may be disseminated with political connotations."
She said the company classed the messaging on the trams as "political messaging" and therefore it would not fit within its ethical charter. She declined to share the charter, saying it was an internal document.
Social media complaints are understood to focus on China's human rights record, and Beijing's crackdown on political opponents in Hong Kong.
In Brussels, the home of the European Union, public and political opinions on China have sunk in line with Beijing's backing of Russia's claims in Ukraine and human rights concerns.
STIB told the advertising company involved, JCDecaux, that because it had received complaints of a political nature, the logos were being pulled.
Eddie Cheung, the head of the Hong Kong Economic Trade Office in Brussels, told the South China Morning Post he was "disappointed and surprised" by the decision, which he described as a "setback".
"There is a requirement that all publicity on trams are apolitical, with no political messages. That's why we were very prudent - there was no political message, just a statement," he said.
He said the office had checked the promotional materials with both the agency and STIB in March and had received the thumbs up. However, Van Hamme disputed whether the company had seen the artwork in advance.
"From the bottom of my heart I think this is unnecessary, but I also understand that this is the political capital of Europe, home to a wide political spectrum," Cheung said.
JCDecaux is contracted by STIB to sell advertising displays on public transport vehicles and within stations in Brussels.
While it declined to provide an official comment, it is understood that the company does not often commission advertisements on behalf of governments, nor was it aware of the potential for political blowback regarding Hong Kong.
It is not the first time STIB has bowed to public opinion on a matter related to China.
In April, it ordered the branding of Chinese fast fashion brand Shein removed from Brussels trams following complaints from members of the public about the company's labour and environmental practices.
The Hong Kong office had been promised a full refund by JCDecaux, Cheung confirmed.
Hong Kong-branded trams also hit the streets of Istanbul, Lisbon and Milan this month in a bid to promote the 25th anniversary.
And while they remain on track in Turkiye and Portugal, they have run into some problems in the Italian city.
Politicians in Milan lodged complaints with the mayor, saying the two trams were "a symbol of Chinese repression in the former English colony", according to local media reports, but they have not been pulled.
The Hong Kong office remains bullish about its anniversary festivities, pointing to recent successful lunches in Dublin, Lisbon and Milan.
A gala reception is planned at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium on June 30 to mark the anniversary of the handover a day later.
More than 200 guests were confirmed, Cheung said, including 12 Brussels-based ambassadors and a plethora of business figures.
Guests will be treated to cocktails and a Hong Kong-themed menu cooked by a Michelin-starred chef.
The EU confirmed it would send "non-political" staff to the event, meaning civil servants, but sources said they would be below the rank to whom the invitation was sent.
However, Brussels is determined to maintain diplomatic norms despite having serious concerns about the political situation in Hong Kong.
"The EU has been critical of the deterioration of the situation in Hong Kong and has expressed publicly and privately its position on the dismantling of the one country, two systems which was guaranteed by Hong Kong's Basic Law," added Nabila Massrali, the bloc's foreign affairs spokeswoman.
EU lawmakers sanctioned by China last year criticised the event as an attempt to "hide the character of John Lee's new regime behind a guided tour of fine arts, a cocktail reception, an exhibition and a stand-up buffet dinner presented by a Michelin-starred chef".
"How could such an insincere show fool anybody? European institutions will continue to stand in solidarity with Hong Kong democrats. And solidarity is not a dinner invitation, not writing an essay, not painting a picture, nor is it embroidery. It is serious," said Reinhard Buetikofer, the head of the European Parliament's delegation to China.
Cheung, the head of the Hong Kong office, acknowledged that there might be "geopolitical issues" affecting the events and that "there are some people who don't want to come due to the China factor".
"I fully respect that, but I believe in Hong Kong," he said.
"In Hong Kong, we celebrate EU day, we illuminate the clock tower and project the EU flag - Hong Kong is an open city."
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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