Vitasoy caught in politically charged PR crisis

The Hong Kong beverage company is under intense scrutiny among Chinese consumers amid an incident that questioned mainland China-Hong Kong diplomacy.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Vitasoy has become caught up in tensions between mainland China and Hong Kong over a politically charged crime conducted by a Hong Kong employee.

A Vitasoy employee, surnamed Leung, stabbed a police officer in Causeway Bay on Thursday (July 1) evening as the city marked the 24th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule. Leung then stabbed himself to death. The police officer, meanwhile, was critically injured but is now in stable condition.

According to investigations, Leung left behind several suicide notes declaring his hatred of the police, his opposition to the Beijing-imposed National Security Law, and his intention to kill an officer on July 1.

Following the incident, an undated internal memo was circulated among Vitasoy employees expressing condolences to Leung’s family. A translated version of the memo, which leaked onto Chinese social media, mentions that “human resources has contacted [Leung’s] family and will follow up and provide assistance when needed.”

The internal memo proved controversial, as Chinese social media users accused the brand of condoning violence and defending anti-China sentiments (see Weibo screenshots below).

Vitasoy then released a public statement on July 2 expressing support for police investigations into the matter. “The group fully supports the Hong Kong authorities to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the case in accordance with the National Security Law. Both the Vitasoy Group and the Vitasoy Co. Ltd. operating in mainland China are committed to supporting the stability, prosperity and development of mainland China and Hong Kong,” a translated excerpt of the statement reads.

But as the company faced growing scrutiny over the initial internal memo, on July 3, it released a second public statement declaring that the internal memo was not officially approved by the company, deeming it “inappropriate”. “It was written by an employee privately and forwarded internally. They are not authorised and did not comply with the internal approval of the Vitasoy Group,” this statement reads.

The company also reiterated that it has “long supported the prosperity, stability and development of Hong Kong” and that it condemns violence that undermines the territory’s social stability.

In the meantime, mainland actor Gong Jun, who previously endorsed a Vitasoy product, announced on Friday (July 2) that he was ending his commercial partnership with the brand. "We resolutely resist all forms of extreme acts including violence and terrorism. We firmly safeguard social stability and the interests of the motherland,” he posted on Weibo.

Another actor and brand ambassador, Ren Jialun, also announced that he was severing ties with the brand. "Ren firmly opposes any remarks and actions that violate laws, undermine national unity and stability or harm national interests," Ren's studio wrote on Weibo on Friday.

Chinese grocery app Dingdong Maicai removed Vitasoy’s products from its catalogue, and a handful of supermarkets and offline retail stores have done the same. During time of publish, ecommerce giants Tmall and JD.com continue to peddle Vitasoy products.

Vitasoy International Holding’s stock price has plunged by 7% in the past five days. According to Vitasoy’s financial results, mainland China accounted for HK$5.01 billion (US$645 million), or a third of its total revenue in the 2020/2021 financial year.


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