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Hong Kong Wants Help Rebranding Its Image. So Far Everyone Has Said No.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

Anti-government protesters shelter from tear gas during a demonstration last weekend.

HONG KONG — If you’re between the ages of 25 and 45 and live in a city like San Francisco, New York or Washington, DC, and an investor or a politician, or perhaps a high-income leisure traveller — the Hong Kong Government would like you to know that its “one country, two systems” rule is working just fine.

As protests in the city reached their 100th day this week following another weekend of violence, a 75-page document obtained by BuzzFeed News and first published by the Guardian reveals how the Hong Kong government sought help from international public relations agencies to rebuild its image with western audiences. Although the document does not specify how many firms were contacted, leaked remarks from Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam revealed the government reached out to eight global PR companies.

However, the government received no bids on its request.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Lam said she would still consider seeking help in the future. “The time will come for us to launch a major campaign to restore some of the damage done to Hong Kong’s reputation,” Lam said.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

Carrie Lam attends a news conference on Tuesday.

The request for a communication strategy described how the protests have “raised concerns about Hong Kong’s positioning as a global business and financial hub with a stable environment underpinned by the rule of law.”

The government said its objectives were to address both negative perceptions following months of protests as well as to underscore Hong Kong’s strengths and “bring out the success of ‘one country, two systems.’” It hoped to target key audiences in Asia-Pacific countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore; the UK, France and Germany in Europe, as well as major US cities like New York and San Francisco.

“One country, two systems” refers to Hong Kong’s special relationship with China that allows the city to maintain its own legal system and trade relations. But it’s that which protesters say is also precisely at risk. A controversial extradition bill that would have allowed people to stand trial China — and which sparked the mass protests in June — is an erosion of that separate system, protesters say. While the extradition bill was the initial spark for the protests, they have now morphed into a wider pro-democracy movement.

Tyrone Siu / Reuters

A protester catches fire after throwing Molotov cocktail during a demonstration near Central Government Complex in Hong Kong on September 15.

In leaked remarks published by Reuters last week, Lam told a crowd that the government had reached out to eight global public relations firms to help improve its image — four immediately declined, two later turned away a request for meetings and only two were left.

“I dare not say the government carries out propaganda, but at least in terms of dissemination of factual information we are very, very weak,” Lam said in the remarks made to the group of businessmen in late August.

Hong Kong’s Information Services Department, which distributed the document, did not respond to requests to provide the names of specific public relations firms the government had contacted.

Protesters, too, have been busy with their own public relations strategies, using crowdfunding to take out ads in newspapers across the world in August. Last week, protesters marched to the US Consulate to encourage politicians to pass the Hong Kong Freedom and Democracy Act which would allow the US to sanction some Chinese and Hong Kong officials if there’s evidence of human rights abuses.

And China state media has bought ads on Twitter and Facebook framing protesters as violent, and op-eds have regularly blamed foreign interference for the protests. Twitter later said it would no longer allow state media to place ads on its platform.

According to a timeline, the request for services was sent to possible contract providers on August 12 and a briefing was planned for a week later. The government hoped a public relations strategy would be in place by the end of the year, the document said.

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