Battle of Banners

A war at the Causeway Bay shopping district has been going on at full throttle in recent months.

No, this is not about scuffles for Hermes bags in glitzy malls, or squabbles for taxis along the roads - although those are known to occur too.

Rather, it's a battle of the banners.

On one side of the pavement are banners promoting the Falungong quasi-religious qigong movement, which is banned in the mainland but is legally registered in Hong Kong.

Slogans include "Falun Dafa is good", while posters show gruesome pictures of practitioners purportedly tortured by the mainland authorities.

Facing off on the other side are anti-Falungong banners put up by the Youth Care Association, a pro-establishment group. Its messages exhort: "Cherish your life. Stay away from the Evil Cult - Falun Gong" and "Li Hongzhi is a wanted person", in reference to the movement's founder.

While Falungong banners have long being part of the city's streetscape, the Youth Care Association is a Johnny-come-lately, appearing on the scene only last year.

Since then, the two groups have been tussling in the art of paraphernalia one-upmanship - competing to have the larger banner, to take up more space on the pavement, and to slap on more posters on every pillar, every lamp post.

Sometimes, under the cover of darkness, the rival camps even try sneakily to obscure each other's propaganda with ever-larger banners - to the extent that guards are posted to stand sentry. Fights are known to have broken out and the police called.

The chaotic scene has been replicated at popular spots across the city, most notably at the Star Ferry Terminal at Tsim Sha Tsui, near the bus terminal outside the Ngong Ping cable car station, as well as outside various MTR stations, annoying passersby and bemusing tourists.

A saunter along the pavement near the Sogo department store in Causeway Bay, for instance, requires a certain nimble-footed dance to avoid tripping over the wooden poles that the banners are erected with.

Falungong supporters have accused the Youth Care Association of being affiliated with the central government's liaison office, sent to sabotage the movement - a charge that the association denies.

Association spokesman Lam Kwok On said it was set up by people from "other district-level groups in the New Territories" and that its aim was to force the government to clear away all the unsightly banners.

The Falungong movement has long established booths across Hong Kong, with activists distributing leaflets. This is legal under the law which allows for freedom of assembly - so long as there aren't more than 30 people.

What is less kosher is when banners are strung up along public railings and rafters. Doing so requires permission from the Lands Department - which had not cracked down on Falungong.

The Youth Care Association's escalating of the war to force the government's hand appears to have worked.

On April 2, the government said it was taking action.

"Apart from posing risks to road users, there were occasions in the past that representatives of individual groups quarrelled and scuffled with each other in public places over the display of banners, causing great nuisances or inconvenience to pedestrians," said a spokesman.

It sent letters to both camps, warning that those who erected banners will be fined up to HK$10,000 (S$1,595) on top of a daily fine of HK$300.

The offending banners disappeared - for a week. Reports are that some Falungong banners have resurfaced in recent days. Activists cite their right under the freedom of assembly law.

What next? Watch this space.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.