HONG KONG MONITOR 16 April 2021

16 april 2021

During the reporting period (9-15 April), geopolitical tensions worsened between the UK and China after British parliamentarians sent a petition to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, calling on him to impose sanctions against senior officials of the Communist Party of China (CPC) officials. Those CPC authorities were identified as directly responsible for the clampdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Beijing responded by issuing a veiled threat of ‘unspecified counter-measures’.

In local public health and safety developments, Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed ‘vaccine bubbles’ that would allow for easier local mobility for individuals who had received a coronavirus (COVID-19) inoculation. The first tranche of relaxation would allow those who have been vaccinated to visit nursing homes and participate in weddings, among other events. Current restrictions will be in effect until 28 April.

Lam also said that Hong Kong expatriates residing in the UK will be allowed to return on any air carrier from May. Cathay Pacific is scheduled to service this route on 22 and 28 April. However, bookings have remained low. This is likely due to the compulsory quarantine period of 21 days for returnees to Hong Kong. Lam indicated that this period would be reduced to seven days for travellers from ‘low-risk’ countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. There was no indication that the UK would fall into Hong Kong’s ‘low-risk’ category despite case numbers in the UK continuing to drop.

Elsewhere, the Falun Gong-linked Epoch Times newspaper was targeted in an attack. Four masked men entered its printing press and destroyed equipment. There is intense media speculation that the paper was targeted due to its outspoken views on the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. A similar attack occurred during mass-anti-government unrest in 2019. In light of this latest incident and the ongoing crack down on media freedoms, similar independent press organisations are likely to be subject to the same level of scrutiny, raising the risk of violent backlash by proxy actors.

 

GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

On Sunday (11 April), pro-democracy activists gathered in several shopping malls over the passing away on Friday (9 April) of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II.

The gatherings for Prince Philip come as London has issued new guidelines simplifying British National (Overseas) (‘BN(O)’) passport settlement scheme applications for Hong Kongers. The guidelines stipulate that spouses, partners, and underage dependent children of BN(O) status-holders can now apply separately to live in the UK. Families no longer have to apply and relocate simultaneously, allowing for more flexibility.

Nearly 30,000 Hong Kongers have already applied for BN(O) visa settlement scheme, which has become a focal point of political tensions between the UK and China. These tensions recently escalated over the UK’s granting of asylum to prominent pro-democracy figure Nathan Law.

Then on Monday (12 April), geopolitical tensions between the UK and China ratcheted up after 103 UK parliamentarians petitioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson to impose sanctions against senior Chinese officials. The petition urges travel bans and asset freezes on a number of officials in the CPC, who are accused of being directly responsible for organising the crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

In response, Luo Huining, the CPC’s most senior representative in Hong Kong, warned against the sanctions on Thursday (15 April), saying that ‘foreign powers’ using the territory as a proxy against Beijing would risk unspecified ‘counter measures’.

Back in March, Beijing blacklisted nine high-profile UK individuals, mostly politicians and one academic from Newcastle University. Entities targeted were the China Research Group, the Conservative Human Rights Commission and Essex Court Chambers, which has ties to the World Uyghur Congress.

Though Luo provided no details on the threat and PM Johnson has not conveyed a potential government response, retaliation on both sides is still likely to be narrowly targeted and limited in scope to not totally undermine trilateral economic activity in Hong Kong and China. Nevertheless, China has resorted to detention of foreign nationals in response to geopolitical transgressions, including the arrests of two Canadians who have been incarcerated since December 2018. The deprivation and detention risk against the expatriate diplomatic and business community will likely rise if UK-imposed sanctions crosses a tolerance threshold.



People queue up to receive a coronavirus vaccine at Hong Kong Central Library, 13 April 2021 / Edmond So

 

PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

On 12 April, Chief Executive Lam proposed ‘vaccine bubbles’ to ease social-distancing rules for those who have received both COVID-19 vaccination. The bubbles would allow vaccinated individuals to visit nursing homes and hospitals and to participate in events such as weddings. Other rules that could potentially be eased with boosted vaccination rates include restrictions on dining and entertainment venues.

COVID-19-linked restrictions will be extended until at least 28 April, subject to monitoring by local authorities. Hong Kong has administered 834,800 vaccine doses as of 11 April, with approximately 7.7 per cent of the population having received at least one dose. Meanwhile, around half of Hong Kong’s population have downloaded the ‘Leave Home Safe’ COVID-19 contact tracing app, according to Hong Kong’s information and technology minister.

The bubble plans intended to incentivise more Hong Kongers to receive vaccines further underscore the challenges posed by vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong. Residents’ trust has been eroded by issues including defective packing of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, halting of AstraZeneca vaccine (recently renamed to Vaxzevria) orders, and misgivings concerning Sinovac’s CoronaVac vaccine. Easing of restrictions through vaccination is likely to partially mitigate hesitancy while enhancing staff mobility within the territory. Increased adoption of the contact tracing app also bodes well for containment efforts.

Chief Executive Lam said on 12 April that residents currently in Britain will be permitted to travel to the territory on any flights from the UK with effect from early May. Lam had partially relaxed a ban on inbound flights from the UK, suspended due to the high rate of coronavirus infections in Britain in March, by permitting two Cathay Pacific flights for 21 April and 28 April that provided 600 seats, far below demand.

Access to routine flights will depend on passengers’ ability to book a hotel room for the compulsory 21-day quarantine period on arrival in Hong Kong. Lam also indicated the quarantine period for fully vaccinated individuals arriving from such low-risk countries as Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand could be reduced from the current 14 days to seven or even less. Lam said more details on reducing the length of quarantine for such countries will be announced later.

On Wednesday (14 April), there were five new COVID-19 cases, taking the total to 11,608 confirmed infections. There were 102 imported cases in the first 12 days of April, 92 of which were from the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan, according to Dr. Ho Pak Leung from the Centre for Infection and Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong. Leung advised the government to consider flight bans from these countries.

Calls to ban flights from countries with links to imported cases further reflect an uneven resumption of international travel. Resumption remains contingent on various factors determining the COVID-19 risk profiles of the countries of origin, as well as local pandemic conditions. Imposition of travel restrictions, often at short notice, will impede mobility of staff deployed to or from Hong Kong.



A CCTV screenshot showing intruders dressed in black, one wielding a sledge-hammer, damaging printing press equipment at the print shop of the Hong Kong edition of The Epoch Times, 12 April 2021 / The Epoch Times


LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

On Tuesday (13 April), Hong Kong newspaper Epoch Times, said that it would ‘never back down’ after four masked men stormed its printing plant early on 12 April and destroyed equipment. The newspaper is linked to the Falun Gong spiritual group, which is banned in China, and was targeted in similar attacks during mass anti-government unrest in Hong Kong in 2019. There was no information to indicate the paper was attacked due to its affiliations with the movement. However, there is speculation that pro-Beijing activists were directly involved. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong condemned the attack.

The attack on the paper occurred at a time when there is growing public distrust in the Hong Kong press as the latter endures increasing political weight to keep in line with the Beijing-imposed national security law.  Public perception of the independence and credibility of Hong Kong’s news outlets have slumped to a record low, according to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute survey released on 7 April.

General satisfaction with news media was at its lowest since records began in 1993, declining by 18 per cent from March 2020. The survey also indicated that 58 per cent of respondents believed that the media is hesitant to criticise authorities, a 20 per cent increase compared to March 2020. Pro-democracy media outlets, namely the Apple Daily, have been subject to intense police scrutiny, even leading to the arrest of its owner Jimmy Lai. However, the paper has not been targeted in sabotage attacks such as the one against the Epoch Times.

It is entirely plausible that the Epoch Times was targeted over its refusal to follow a trend of muted criticism of authorities. If so, similar independent media outlets will also be subject to the same level of scrutiny, hostile surveillance, and potential attack.

In other local political developments, Hong Kong’s electoral reform bill was introduced in the Legislative Council (LegCo) on 14 April. The bill will impose sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s political system that will greatly reduce opposition participation in legislative and political matters.  The LegCo is expected to pass the bill by the end of May after the third reading. The first and second readings of the bill come after Chief Executive Lam on 13 April announced that LegCo elections are scheduled for 19 December. The imposition of sweeping electoral reforms, while widely anticipated, greatly underscores Beijing’s desire to severely restrict the ability of pro-democracy politicians to exercise influence in the territory. The move is likely to contribute towards the accelerating exodus of Hong Kongers leaving the territory, a significant proportion of which will not feel adequately represented in the territory’s political system.


THE WEEK AHEAD

COVID-19 related developments will be a particular area to monitor as Hong Kong’s vaccine rollout continues, increasing the number of inoculated and raising societal and business confidence. Lam has indicated that international air travel could open up via these ‘air bubbles’ with low-risk countries, with the most likely corridor to open with Singapore, then soon after Australia and New Zealand.

The Hong Kong authorities operate one of the world’s most restrictive COVID-19 access and quarantine regimes, and any indication this may be easing will be welcomed by foreign companies and individuals with business or personal ties with the territory. However, the local administration has demonstrated its highly cautious approach to the pandemic by quickly reversing any easing of COVID-19 restrictions if the health risks are perceived to merit such action. Further, Hong Kong is unlikely to permit routine international travel until it has fully reopened its borders with mainland China, reflecting political rather than public health concerns. Foreign companies seeking to deploy staff to Hong Kong should ensure they have contingency plans in the event of any sudden change in policy by the territory’s authorities regarding access due to any changes in local or national infection rates.

As these corridors open, there is likely to be a surge in Hong Kongers leaving the territory on political grounds. The government’s electoral reform bill sends a stark message about the territory’s irreversible assimilation into Beijing’s political and legislative infrastructure. Increasing outflows of many high-skilled Hong Kongers will dent the human capital outlook of the territory and reduce its attractiveness to foreign investors.


UPCOMING PROTESTS  16 – 22 April

Upcoming significant dates in the pro-democracy calendar are likely to draw small numbers of activists for memorial gatherings, including the following:

22 April: Memorial for Yin-lam Chan


PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 9 – 15 April

Sunday 11 April

1900: Pro-democracy activists held gatherings in several shopping malls Times Square shopping centre, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island; MOKO shopping centre, Mong Kok, Kowloon; New Town Plaza shopping centre, Sha Tin, New Territories, over the passing away on Friday (9 April) of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Prominent activist Alexandra Wong attended the gathering in Times Square carrying a British flag and a photo of the recently deceased member of British monarchy. Many Hong Kongers have also since Friday reportedly laid down flowers outside of the British Consulate General in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. The assemblies are notable given heightened political tensions between Beijing and London, including over the accelerating relocation of Hong Kongers to the UK via the BN(O) passport settlement scheme. Pro-democracy activists including Alexandra Wong have waved British flags during previous demonstrations, including during mass unrest opposing the extradition bill in 2019. These gatherings did not cause significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.