Hong Kong locals are voicing their concerns after a local franchise of the popular convenience store chain 7-Eleven decided to withdraw The Epoch Times’ Hong Kong edition from its local stores beginning on Aug. 16.
7-Eleven licenses franchises around the world via partnerships with local brands. The Hong Kong franchise has no relation to the U.S.-headquartered company.
The Epoch Times’ Chinese-language newspaper was first founded in 2000 by a group of Chinese Americans who wished to provide an independent source of news free from the Chinese regime’s influence. In 2002, the Hong Kong bureau was established. For many years, it had been publishing a daily newspaper, distributed for free.
In April, the Hong Kong edition switched to a for-sale model and began selling its daily newspapers at 7-Eleven stores and newsstands across the city.
The Epoch Times Hong Kong entered into an eight-month renewable contract with 7-Eleven’s holding company, Dairy Farm Company Ltd. in April, making the chain’s 500 stores its chief distribution channel.
But on July 15, The Epoch Times received a formal letter from 7-Eleven notifying the publication that the papers would be completely removed from shelves in August, without including an explanation. Further requests to meet with the management received no response by press time.
Cheryl Ng, the spokesperson for the Hong Kong bureau of The Epoch Times, said that the decision was unreasonable and would deprive local readers of their right to truthful information.
“This type of behavior is highly unusual in the business world, especially considering sales which had been well above the minimum target,” Ng said at a press conference in Hong Kong on Aug. 15.
Ng said that since entering into the contract, the Hong Kong edition has faced a series of stringent requirements from Dairy Farm, which owns the convenience store chain.
Two months after the newspapers appeared on 7-Eleven store shelves, Dairy Farm abruptly cut down the number of distributing outlets to 150, citing low sales volume. Choo Peng Chee, CEO of the Dairy Farm North Asia Region, described it as a business decision, in a June 12 email exchange with The Epoch Times Hong Kong.
Contrary to Dairy Farm’s explanation, Ng said, sales of the papers have been far exceeding the targets. She added that Dairy Farm’s actions were inconsistent, as the company pulled the newspapers from stores that were inside or near subway stations, where the papers had seen the highest sales.
According to Ng, the convenience store chain also prohibited the Hong Kong edition from prominently displaying the 7-Eleven name or logo to publicize its availability, whether in print or on its website, greatly constraining the publication’s ability to reach readers. In promotional materials, the newspaper was only allowed to use vaguely worded phrases such as “available at convenience stores,” Ng added. This posed a challenge for readers old and new to locate the papers.
To inform readers of its new distribution channel, Hong Kong bureau staff resorted to standing near 7-Eleven stores to promote the paper.
“Due to these limitations … [and] the fact that we were no longer distributing our papers freely on the street, The Epoch Times had virtually disappeared,” Ng said.
Both Dairy Farm and its UK-based parent company, Jardine Matheson, didn’t respond to requests for comment as of press time.
Press Freedom Threatened
Hong Kong critics and loyal readers have expressed dismay over the contract termination and suggested that the move was politically motivated. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has called on 7-Eleven Hong Kong to “reconsider their decision and not to yield to any pressure that they might have received or receive in the future.”
“We can’t see any reason but the pressure from the Chinese authorities for this withdrawal,” Cédric Alviani, East Asia bureau director at RSF, told The Epoch Times. He said discontinuing the distribution in many 7-Eleven stores was a loss of “a positive element for the plurality of the media.”
Concerns have been mounting over the erosion of freedom of expression and civil liberties in Hong Kong since the territory’s transfer from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
In recent months, Hongkongers have taken to the streets every week since June, citing fears that a controversial extradition bill would be the final straw in Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy.
Ng said that the Hong Kong edition has been striving to provide an accurate picture of the protests from the frontlines.
Local activist and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung lamented that the 7-Eleven cancellation would leave Hongkongers without an independent news source on the protests.
The Hong Kong edition has “allowed people to see more information and insights … [and] has for the past 10 years targeted the Chinese Communist Party and its suppression of different groups,” Leung said at the press conference. He added that he was a loyal reader of the paper himself.
He called Dairy Farm’s explanation for its decision “illogical” and “purely political,” noting that several local pro-Beijing newspapers, such as Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, are sold at 7-Eleven stores without any hiccups. “How come 7-Eleven doesn’t bother them?”
Hong Kong-based China expert and former magazine editor Cai Yongmei said that the cancellation reflects the Chinese regime’s tightening grip on Hong Kong.
“They want to suppress Hongkongers’ protests. … If you make business deals with Chinese companies, they will pressure you from this aspect,” Cai told The Epoch Times, noting that Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, recently dismissed several staff members who participated in the recent protests, amid pressure from Beijing.
Leung added: “Hong Kong is undergoing a difficult time. The Epoch Times Hong Kong is a reflection of that. If they can be treated like this, other media can suffer even more pressure.”
Ng called on local business owners and individuals to be part of the newspaper’s distribution network and advance its circulation. She added that the publication “[refuses] to be silenced at this critical moment” and will continue to serve the public as a “testament of history” no matter the cost.
“Freedom is not free,” Ng said.