British PR Firm Founded by Ex-Bell Pottinger EmployeesSnaps Up Contract to ‘Relaunch Hong Kong’
As the Chinese Government continues to clamp down on civil liberties for those living in the city, its leaders have turned to a UK company unafraid to step where others do not
In shaky handheld footage shot on mobile phones, the world has witnessed Hong Kong’s police force storm subway trains, brutally beat unarmed passengers, fire thousands of rounds of tear gas at protestors and arrest children as young as 12.
The videos and photographs have poured out from the city’s streets over the past 12 months and are likely to go down in history for documenting how one of the world’s biggest financial hubs was transformed from a semi-democratic society into a police state.
It is a transformation that was finalised on 1 July when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping forced through draconian legislation, known as the National Security Law. Presented by the city’s leaders as bringing “stability and harmony” to Hong Kong, the law allows Chinese security officials to operate in the city, criminalises protests that call for autonomy and gives Beijing the power to interpret the law in any way it sees fit.
Those charged under the law could also face a secret trial, without a jury, or be extradited to the mainland where China’s judiciary boasts of a 99% conviction rate.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called it a “clear and serious breach” of the ‘two systems, one country’ agreement between the UK and China which “violates Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”.
US law-makers have approved sanctions that penalise banks for doing business with Chinese officials, with the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi saying that “the law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised”.
The Hong Kong Government is facing a serious image problem. To solve it, it is not turning to China’s well-established propaganda machine – which has heaped praise on the National Security Law for allowing “democracy, freedom, pluralism and openness”.
Instead, it is turning to the UK’s PR industry.
In the months before the National Security Law came into force, PR industry news outlet Provoke Media revealed many of the world’s biggest PR firms had been invited to submit proposals for a ‘Relaunch Hong Kong’ – a campaign that the city’s Information Services department said would “highlight Hong Kong’s recovery and help rebuild confidence in Hong Kong as a place to invest, do business, work and live”.
Many of the firms chose to steer clear of the contract due to the city’s tarnished reputation. But one company that didn’t was the London-based firm Consulum. On 29 June, it was announced that the company had been awarded the lucrative £5 million contract.
Ben Rogers, the chair and founder of Hong Kong Watch, told Byline Times he found it “extremely surprising” that a UK company would “take on this contract at a time when the Chinese regime and its puppets in the Hong Kong Government are systematically, wilfully and speedily destroying whatever remains of Hong Kong’s reputation as an open, free, autonomous city where the rule of law, judicial independence and basic liberties are respected”.
“In the past week, the Chinese Government has flagrantly violated an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and decimated Hong Kong’s promised autonomy,” he said. “No amount of image improvement or public relations can make up for that. Indeed, those who assist in trying to do so risk serious reputational damage.
“Presumably they think that a professional public relations firm will do a better job at covering up the damage done to Hong Kong than the Chinese Communist Party and the Hong Kong Government’s wolf warrior diplomacy and propaganda which the world can see through.”
However, Consulum seems to have little concern for its own image.
Before taking on the Hong Kong contract, it was best known for representing Saudi Arabia’s leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, following the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018.
Before that, the company’s founders Tim Ryan and Matthew Gunther Bushell were employees at Bell Pottinger, a British company with a track record of representing some of the most notorious dictators ranging from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Belarus’ Aleksandr G Lukashenko.
Just as Consulum has demonstrated with Hong Kong, Bell Pottinger was a firm that regularly dared to go where many other PR firms didn’t, winning it contracts that were both extremely risky but also lucrative. It employed a range of controversial tactics including editing the Wikipedia entries of its clients, running fake social media campaigns and creating propaganda.
One investigation into the company by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the company was hired by the Pentagon to work in Iraq, where it was paid $540 million to make fake terror and news-style videos, targeting al-Qaeda.
But taking risks and employing dirty tactics ultimately caused its demise. In 2017, it was revealed that Bell Pottinger was being paid £100,000 a month by its client Oakbay Capital, which was owned by the powerful Gupta family, to run a social media and PR campaign aimed at inflaming racial tensions in South Africa. The goal was to divert attention away from a scandal involving the country’s President, Jacob Zuma.
Francis Ingham, director general of Britain’s Public Relations and Communications Association, said at the time that “Bell Pottinger has brought the PR and communications industry into disrepute with its actions”.
Former South African politician and executive director of Shadow World Investigations, Andrew Feinstein told Byline Times that Bell Pottinger was “despicable”, “the worst of the worst” and that, in his opinion, those who have been associated with the firm “deserve an appalling reputation”.
He said: “It represented some of the world’s worst arms dealers and human rights abusers. It literally made money out of the blood of innocent people. It doesn’t surprise me at all that some of their employees have turned up to sugar coat the clamp down in Hong Kong.”
By the time Bell Pottinger collapsed, Consulum had already been operating for four years and taken on clients in the Middle East.
Byline Times contacted Consulum to ask why it had been willing to take on the Hong Kong contract and if the decision was based purely on profits or if there were any ethical considerations. It did not respond.
Peter Frankental, Amnesty UK’s business and human rights programme director, said: “Any PR firm acting for the Hong Kong Government in the current situation must conduct human rights due diligence to ensure that it doesn’t contribute to human rights violations through its operations. Otherwise it would be in breach of international standards applicable to companies.
“There are many ways in which a PR firm might be linked to the ongoing human rights violations. Under no circumstances should Consulum help the Hong Kong Government cover up human rights violations, vilify human rights defenders or justify national security laws that criminalise peaceful protest.”
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“Our worry is that these may be precisely the reasons why the firm has been engaged.”