HONG KONG — When Americans think of symbols of democracy, they might imagine the Statue of Liberty, or the Declaration of Independence, or perhaps the Liberty Bell.
Here, in China’s semi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong, citizens have adopted a more unusual symbol of their political aspirations: a grinning Ikea wolf doll named “Lufsig.”
Decked out in jeans, suspenders, and a red-gingham shirt, Lufsig seems at first glance to be an unlikely icon of the city’s tumultuous struggle for self-determination. (The wolf is sold with a tiny grandma doll which he presumably would like to eat.)
But this Little Red Riding Hood-inspired toy has become a rallying point for citizens increasingly concerned about Hong Kong’s political future.
It all began last weekend, when pro-democracy demonstrators hurled the doll at a protested against Hong Kong’s chief executive, CY Leung. Because Leung is frequently called a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and the Cantonese name of the doll sounds like an obscene insult (involving a conjugal act and “your mother”) the doll quickly caught on among ordinary citizens frustrated with the government.
By Tuesday, all three of Ikea’s stores in Hong Kong had sold out of Lufsig, as Hong Kong citizens lined up to buy the subversive lupine symbol of discontent. Local celebrities and democratic activists posted photos of themselves posing with the Swedish wolf, while several Facebook fan pages sprang up, drawing more than 45,000 “likes.” Ikea stores from Singapore to Shenzhen, China also quickly sold out their stocks.
While dissatisfaction in Hong Kong is wide ranging, much of it has to do with fear that China will not tolerate truly free elections in the territory. Under the terms of Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, Hong Kong is due to hold its first elections decided by universal suffrage in 2017. Over the last year, tensions have risen as the current chief executive of Hong Kong has signaled that Beijing officials will not permit candidates that do not have their approval.
As silly as throwing a wolf doll may seem, it’s a sign of the deep frustration and impotence many in Hong Kong feel.
“You see every time that every time the public can use events to embarrass [Chief Executive Leung], they will do so,” said Ivan Choy, professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Because we do not have elections and democracy, we cannot replace the chief executive by elections. This is a way for the public to release their anger and their dissatisfaction. If we had democracy, they would have a more positive way to release their anger.”
In November, approval ratings for the chief executive hit a record low of 40 percent.
This year has seen several large-scale protests both against Leung and in favor of universal suffrage. The largest of these occurred on July 1, when organizers estimate that 430,000 people gathered in Victoria Park to call for full democracy.
Yuen Chan, a lecturer in journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, reflected that this broad desire for self-determination is what lies behind Lufsig’s transformation “from a soft toy with a dodgy Cantonese name” into an symbol of “shared hunger for fully democratic elections for the city's leader and legislature, as well as a shared frustration over what Hong Kongers say is an unresponsive and incompetent government.”
Of course, not all of the Lufsig craze is driven by noble democratic sentiments. Hawkers have already started reselling the doll on Taobao, China’s eBay-like online marketplace, for a markup. While in Hong Kong the doll retails for $13, online vendors are selling them for up more than twice that.