Apr 19, 2022 - World

Pocketbooks for democracy

Illustration of a fist as a cursor icon

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A grassroots organization in Taiwan is helping democracy-conscious consumers put their money where their values lie.

The big picture: Boycotts by Chinese nationalists target companies viewed as having crossed Chinese Communist Party red lines — including supporting Taiwan's effort to be recognized as a sovereign state. One group in Taiwan hopes to galvanize consumers in democratic countries to push back.

Catch up quick: In 2019, Chinese internet users called for a boycott of some Taiwanese milk tea shops operating in China, after one franchise in Hong Kong put up a sign supporting the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests.

  • In 2021, Swedish fashion retailer H&M and sports clothing companies Nike and Adidas faced boycotts in China after the companies stated they would no longer use cotton from Xinjiang, where the cotton and textiles industries are closely linked to forced labor.
  • But China's March 2021 ban on Taiwanese pineapple imports, imposed to punish Taiwan for its ongoing attempts to distance itself from Beijing, backfired when people in Taiwan went out and bought pineapple to support local producers affected by the ban, bringing international attention to the ban.

Details: Snowball, a nonprofit organization co-founded in February 2021 by Taiwan-based Americans Colin Hodge and Nadav Mills and run by volunteers from Taiwan and elsewhere, compiles ratings of milk tea shops and retail chains in Asia based on their positions on Hong Kong, Taiwan and other issues related to political values and human rights.

  • Snowball's website, which is in both Chinese and English, now includes guides for 22 shops and top brands.

What they're saying: "As consumers and businesses, we can continue to increase our influence on companies, industries and governments by steering our financial support to those who align with our values of improving human rights and freedoms," Hodge said.

Context: Russia's invasion of Ukraine galvanized consumers around the world to avoid organizations with ties to Moscow and instead shop at stores that openly support Ukraine.

  • "Much of the democratic world was operating under the illusion that deep financial ties with authoritarian governments would serve as a sufficient deterrent for flagrant aggression, and that those governments would liberalize over time.  That illusion now seems shattered," Hodge told Axios.
  • Hodge hopes that consumers will make this attitude permanent and apply it to China as well.

Go deeper: Asian "Milk Tea Alliance" spills over to Hong Kong protests

Go deeper