Skateboarding brand Vans is facing a boycott in Hong Kong after it removed a shoe alluding to the city’s anti-government protests from a sneaker design competition.
The company’s decision to withdraw the proposed design was met with outrage on social media, where users began uploading videos and photos of themselves throwing their Vans sneakers in the trash, and even setting them on fire.
Held annually, the Vans Custom Culture competition invites the public to submit their own shoe designs, with the winner of an online vote receiving $25,000 and having their sneakers manufactured by the brand.
After voting opened last week, one entry quickly rose to the top, reportedly garnering tens of thousands of votes – a shoe themed around the monthslong protests in the semi-autonomous city.
The design, attributed to a Canada-based user named Naomiso, features a red bauhinia, the flower on Hong Kong’s flag, and one of the yellow umbrellas synonymous with the city’s 2014 pro-democracy protests. Illustrations on the sneaker’s side depict a crowd of protesters wearing gas masks, goggles and hard hats.
On Saturday, with over a week of voting still to go, the submission was removed from the competition website. In a statement posted on Facebook in Chinese and English, the brand said that “a small number of artistic submissions have been removed … to uphold the purpose of Custom Culture.”
“As a brand that is open to everyone, we have never taken a political position and therefore review designs to ensure they are in line with our company’s long-held values of respect and tolerance, as well as with our clearly communicated guidelines for this competition,” the statement said, without referring specifically to the protest-themed design.
The statement drew condemnation on social media from Hong Kong protest supporters, where a number of posts were accompanied by the hashtag #boycottVans. Some users implied that the decision contradicted Vans’ history and identity as a skateboarding brand rooted in youthful rebellion, while others created satirical posters that changed the brand’s slogan, “Off the Wall,” to instead read “Lick the Great Wall,” a jibe about bowing to Chinese pressure.
Hong Kong and Beijing have long had a fraught relationship. Although Hong Kong is part of China, it’s also a semi-autonomous city with its own language, currency, legal system, and culture – and in recent years, its citizens have pulled further away, with some even calling for independence from China.
This summer’s protests have seen anti-China sentiment in full force. Protesters have burned Chinese flags and thrown them into the harbor and spray painted “Hong Kong is not China” on walls across the city.
“This is a big move against the freedom of speech of all Hong Kong freedom fighters,” wrote one Twitter user, referring to the Vans controversy. “Now I see there is no way I can keep supporting your brand.”
Sneaker chain Dahood, which operates several Vans franchise stores in Hong Kong, announced Sunday that it was suspending operations at three locations because of “the controversy caused by the Custom Culture design contest.”
The widespread anti-government protests, which began in June over a since-withdrawn extradition bill, have grown increasingly violent in recent weeks. Friday night saw a second protester shot with a firearm during clashes between protesters and police officers. On Sunday, a driver mowed down protesters with a taxi cab and was subsequently beaten bloody by a mob.
Vans joins a growing list of companies that have faced criticism from Hong Kong and Chinese consumers for taking perceived stances on the protests. Over the weekend, protesters attacked and vandalized the premises of businesses linked to mainland China, many of which had shut in advance.
In June, Nike pulled a number of products in China after a fashion designer sparked social media backlash for expressing support for the protests. Versace, Coach, and Givenchy have also come under fire from Chinese consumers for products that neglected to identify Hong Kong as part of China.
CNN has reached out to Vans for comment.