Hongkongers in Melbourne and Sydney say billboards that proclaim Hong Kong has entered a "new era" of stability, prosperity and opportunity are "blatant lies" and "very upsetting".
The 14 advertisements promote the 25th anniversary of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China.
On Wednesday, a poster with the words "Stop Beijing's propaganda" was slapped on one of the billboards in Leichhardt, Sydney, along with a second that said "fight for freedom" and "stand with Hong Kong".
It came after not-for-profit organisations Australia Hong Kong Link and the Victoria HongKongers Association lodged complaints with Ad Standards, arguing the advertisements vilified parts of the Hong Kong community "on account of ethnicity".
"To describe Hong Kong as entering a new era of stability, prosperity, and opportunity after an estimated 300,000 HongKongers left the city since the crackdown, many of whom are now residing in Victoria, is degrading and humiliating to this section of the community," the Victorian association letter stated.
"To those who have recently settled in Victoria, such rhetoric on the billboard is likely to instil an impression that even in Victoria, they are not entirely out of reach of the regime and that they are not truly safe."
A spokesperson for Ad Standards confirmed it had received the complaints but said political advertisements were "outside our jurisdiction".
"Australia’s advertising self-regulation system is designed to regulate commercial marketing, and advertising of products and services," the spokesperson said.
The Australia Hong Kong Link letter said the group believed the advertisement was funded by "the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong Government or related entities", and disagreed with the ad contents.
"Such description is blatant lies and is humiliating to many members of the HongKonger diaspora who see the billboard, many of whom were forced to escape from Hong Kong's draconian political oppression and settle in New South Wales," the letter said.
The ABC contacted the Hong Kong government for a response and received a one-line statement from the Sydney Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.
"To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Sydney of the HKSAR has launched an advertising campaign in Sydney and Melbourne in August 2022 with 14 billboards displaying the celebration theme 'A New Era – Stability • Prosperity • Opportunity'," the spokesperson said.
The Chinese embassy in Australia was contacted for comment but did not respond.
The company that owns the billboards, JCDecaux, said it displayed content provided by third parties.
"Before publishing, the content of the advert was reviewed by JCDecaux against the relevant industry codes and guidelines for the outdoor media industry," a spokesperson said.
"It meets the relevant policies in relation to outdoor advertising."
Former Hong Kong MP calls for ads to be taken down
Ted Hui, a former opposition member of Hong Kong's parliament who now lives in exile in Australia, said he found the advertisements "very upsetting" and would like them taken down.
"I think when whenever governments put up public statements in advertisements that information must be true," Mr Hui said.
"If Russia … put an advertisement in major cities in Australia promoting that it is a peacemaker, promoting their military actions for the peace of other countries, would that ever be allowed?"
Mr Hui said the situation in Hong Kong was not stable and people were still "desperate for freedom".
"There are more than 1,000 dissidents, young protesters, and former politicians and people from all walks of life, they are put in jail because of their political opinions," he said.
Mr Hui also described Hong Kong's current parliament as a "sham parliament … appointed by Beijing".
Chinese President Xi Jinping coined the phrase 'a new era'
Similar ads have been seen at train stations in Hong Kong itself, and also on the sides of trams in Brussels, where they were removed after complaints from the public.
A Chinese academic from Australian National University, who did not want his name published because of security concerns, said the language used in the advertisements showed Beijing was behind the campaign.
He said Chinese President Xi Jinping coined the phrase "a new era" and often used those words to describe his time in office.
"A new era for Hong Kong means Hong Kong after the implementation of the national security law … which authorised the Hong Kong government to … crack down [on pro-democracy activists]," he said.
The three words — stability, prosperity, and opportunity — were also frequently used by other Chinese diplomats around the world, he added.
"They are using the same language [to say] what happened in Hong Kong is not what you Westerners think, it's actually a transition from chaos to order and to prosperity," he said.
The academic said the ads might be targeting Chinese immigrants and Hongkongers in Australia, and potentially also the business community here because the signs are in English.
"The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, and many high-ranking officials in the Chinese Communist Party, have these very materialistic beliefs that economic benefits can buy off everyone," he said.
"They're really just trying to attract the business.
"The Chinese government still sees Hong Kong as an important commercial hub."
Benjamin Herscovitch, also from Australian National University, said the purpose of the billboards was probably twofold.
"Persuading the Australian public that the Chinese government's systematic political repression in Hong Kong is somehow legitimate," Dr Herscovitch said.
"[And to] project a broadly positive view of the Chinese government and its control of Hong Kong."