Great Britain

British Council removes 'GREAT' ads after colonial flags debate

British Council exhibition posters removed early in response to heated discussion online

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 January, 2013, 7:14am


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The British Council has removed eye-catching train station advertisements bearing the UK flag and the slogan "This is GREAT Britain" amid sensitivity over the growing use of the colonial flag as a symbol of opposition to the Hong Kong government.

The ads were put up in Admiralty MTR station last week to promote an education exhibition being held at the weekend but were taken down a few days early. They sparked widespread discussion on the Facebook sites of both private users and the British consulate, with some posters glorifying colonial rule.

Asked why the ads had been taken down, the British Council said some of the wording was "open to misinterpretation".

"The GREAT campaign is being used to promote the upcoming British Council education exhibition," a spokeswoman said. "As a global campaign it has uniform messaging for all markets. Given some of the wording has been subject to misinterpretation in Hong Kong, it was decided to remove those posters a few days early in order not to detract from the positive nature and overall success of the campaign."

The MTR Corporation would not comment beyond saying that advertising in its stations were commercial agreements between the firm and its clients.

On Facebook, one user wrote: "Yes! This is Hong Kong, here is Great Britain!"

Another wrote: "Great Britain built Great Hong Kong!" and "UK has always seemed to mean less at home than to its own nationals and admirers abroad." A picture of the ad attracted more than 90 likes on Facebook.

In recent anti-government rallies, some protesters have waved colonial Hong Kong flags, which have a prominent image of the British flag.

City University political scientist James Sung Lap-kung said those who were enamoured of the colonial regime were mostly young people born in the 1980s and '90s, when Hong Kong was enjoying its heyday socially and economically.

"Before the 1970s, Hong Kong was plagued by a string of injustices and social problems, such as corruption and a wide poverty gap, as well as a lack of social services," he said. "Establishment of the [Independent Commission Against Corruption] in 1974 marked a milestone in Hong Kong's anti-corruption history."

The generation born before the 1970s and those who lived through those days "might not be so impressed by the British rule", Sung said. Many protesters also felt upset by post-handover rule "amid all the ups and downs of Hong Kong", he said, including the 1997 Asian financial turmoil, the Sars epidemic in 2003 and the financial crisis in 2009.

In contrast, they remembered pre-handover Hong Kong as corruption-free, booming economically with an efficient civil service and better public services, "so it is no surprise that they are expressing appreciation for the British government", he said.