HONG KONG MONITOR 18 June 2021

18 june 2021

From a public health and safety perspective, this monitoring cycle (11-17 June) marked a break in the 42-day trend of no untraceable coronavirus (COVID-19) infections when a 17-year-old girl contracted the Alpha variant of the disease. Her case sent an alarm to public health authorities, prompting a mass screening of more than 140 individuals thought to have had first and second order contact with her. Subsequent speculation ranged from exposure to rodents to the packaging of frozen foods. As of Friday (18 June), no source has been identified, elevating concerns over another wave of the disease.

A possible radiological leak at the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in neighbouring Guangdong province added another layer of stress on the territory’s delicate public health situation. On Monday (14 June), Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said her government is ‘highly concerned’ about the situation. Framatome, the France-headquartered joint operator of the facility, acknowledged that it was dealing with a ‘performance issue’, but that it was running within safety parameters. The US government had been assessing a report by Framatome about performance issues since late May, initially deeming it as an ‘imminent radiological threat’. Since 15 June, however, the US government did not assess the situation as rising to ‘crisis level’, but considered escalation to ‘disaster’ as a real possibility. Chinese public safety officials raised the acceptable levels of radiation outside the plant to avoid closure protocols, which has also caused considerable concern for the public’s health as far away as Hong Kong.

Bringing focus back to local political and security developments, a mass police raid on the main office of the Apple Daily news outlet and the subsequent arrest of five executives served as another clear-cut warning to political dissidents and pro-democracy activists. The event itself was spectacular because of the 500 or so police officers involved, and portends a future operant reality of harsher political suppression that will impact organisations with interests in the territory. Additional clampdowns of this type is very likely as China prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling communist party’s foundation on 1 July.


GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

On Wednesday (16 June), China’s most senior official in Hong Kong called countering what he termed ‘foreign forces’ his main priority. Liu Guangyuan said, ‘we will more vigorously oppose external interference’ while warning ‘any attempt, open or underhanded, to interfere in China’s internal affairs and curb China’s development is doomed to fail.’

On the morning of Thursday (17 June) around 500 police officers searched the offices of the Apple Daily newspaper soon after five senior editors and other executives were arrested for allegedly breaching the national security law (NSL) regarding colluding with foreign forces.

Many in Hong Kong will assume the two events are calibrated for maximum impact in terms of serving as a general warning and as a specific action. At one level, Liu’s reiteration of Beijing’s long-established position and further arrests at pro-democracy news outlet, Apple Daily, is not unexpected as China prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling communist party’s foundation on 1 July. Of greater systemic concern for international companies and their staff is the emphasis on identifying usually unnamed ‘foreign forces’ as posing a major threat to China, and by extension Hong Kong.

There is now a growing risk that rising anti-foreign sentiment encouraged by the communist party will affect overseas entities operating in China and Hong Kong in a number of ways, ranging from brand boycotts to a reluctance of some to seek employment with international companies. There has also been the continual exodus of Hong Kong’s well-educated middle class, driven mainly by suppression of political dissent and other democratic freedoms via the NSL and increasing encroachment of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doctrine into the educational sector and government bureaucratic corps.

Destination countries, such as Canada, Australia, the UK, Taiwan and the US, among others, have seen a surge in visa, passport and asylum request applications as well as growing interest in procuring overseas properties. These realities have undoubtedly worsened diplomatic tensions with Beijing, and likely will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

There is an additional threat of how ‘foreign influence’ may be interpreted in the event of local trade or commercial disputes involving overseas governments. Companies should assess the vulnerability of staff and operations to such potential threats.


Hong Konger visits a makeshift memorial at Pacific Place in Hong Kong, 15 June 2021 / Apple Daily 


PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

On 14 June, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) announced that it was investigating one new imported COVID-19 case from Indonesia. There were no local cases.

Despite the almost negligible COVID-19 caseload, Hong Kong authorities are still scrambling to identify the source of a 17-year-old girl’s infection that broke the territory’s 42-day streak of no untraceable COVID-19 cases. Everything from rats to frozen food are being inspected. The top government pandemic advisor has advised more than 100 of her close contacts to be screened for antibodies. The development will be of high concern given warnings that the untraceable infection could trigger another wave of locally transmitted COVID-19 cases. Businesses should monitor government announcements on the untraceable infection for updates. Factor likely increased local virus transmission and attendant movement restrictions into operational planning. Remind staff to exercise enhanced personal hygiene protocols to mitigate the risk of infection.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said her government is ‘highly concerned’ about the situation at the nearby Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in mainland China’s Guangdong province. Lam’s remarks came after media reports claimed that the plant could be experiencing a leak. On 14 June, Framatome, the France-headquartered joint operator of the plant, said that it was dealing with a ‘performance issue’ at the site, but that it was running within safety parameters. However, Lam said data on 14 June from the Hong Kong Observatory and other departments indicated that radiation levels in the territory were normal. Observatory data from 15 June continued to indicate normal levels. Framatome had warned the US Department of Energy of an ‘imminent radiological threat’ and accused Chinese authorities of raising acceptable limits for radiation outside the plant to avoid its closure, according to a CNN report on 14 June, which also said that US officials believed that the situation did not pose a severe safety threat.

Lam’s remarks are likely to spur wider scepticism by the international community around reassurances by China’s ruling communist party on 15 June that there are no irregularities in the plant’s radiation levels. The plant is situated approximately 135 km west of Hong Kong. Any leak could affect public health in the city; however, with the prevailing winds moving from south to north, there is limited risk of exposure to any leaked radiation at this time. Associated health conditions depend on intensity and protraction of exposure to radiation as well as the physical conditions of the individual.

Businesses should prioritise following announcements by international monitoring agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy, which have a network of atmospheric monitors able to detect radiation level fluctuations globally, over Chinese state sources given transparency concerns. Review current health and safety policies and protocols to ensure they are fit-for-purpose against radiological disasters.

The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) reported on Thursday (17 June) no local coronavirus (COVID-19) infections, extending a trend to tend consecutive days. No imported cases were reported. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government reportedly approved shortening the quarantine period to seven days for international travellers from non-high-risk countries who have had two doses of COVID-19 vaccine and tested for antibodies. Currently, travellers from medium-risk countries will have to quarantine for 14 days. It is uncertain when the relaxation will take place, but it certainly bodes well for international travel and commerce.


Police mobilise during a rally at Pacific Place , 16 June 2021 / Apple Daily


LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

On Saturday (12 June), Hong Kong police arrested three protesters demonstrating in Mong Kok, Kowloon, on the two-year anniversary of 2019’s mass unrest. They were arrested for disorderly conduct and failing to provide proof of identity. Ten people were summoned for breaching a ban on gatherings, according to police, which also said that several people set up road blockades. That day in 2019 outside Government Headquarters in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, marked another significant escalation point for Hong Kong’s stuttering pro-democracy movement.

Around 40,000 Hong Kongers publicly protested against the bill and earlier episodes of police brutality, but it was the day that the activists formally pushed forward with the ‘Five Demands’. These included: 1) withdrawal of the extradition bill, 2) resignation of Carrie Lam, 3) retraction of ‘riot’ characterisation of earlier protests, 4) release of detained protesters, and 5) the establishment of an independent commission to investigate alleged police misconduct during protests. Despite the downturn in protests over the past year, the 12 June rally in Mong Kok once again highlighted the criticality of significant dates in keeping the pro-democracy movement. 

On 17 June, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) issued an alert about a fraudulent website purported to be that of the First Gulf Bank HK. HKMA warned the public not to visit the URL http[colon]//1stgulfb[dot]com. Anyone who has conducted any financial transactions or provided or updated personal details should contact the Hong Kong Police’s cybersecurity unit immediately at 2860 5012.

Cyber-fraud targeting retail consumers in the financial services sector is pervasive in Hong Kong and Greater China. Incidents of fraud are alerted almost weekly, suggesting that risk versus reward for fraudsters weighs heavily towards the latter and drives these illicit activities.

For companies with operations and personnel in Hong Kong, it would be prudent to keep vigilant of these scams by periodically monitoring for alerts from the HKMA. Staff should check that the website domain is the official one, watch for signs of possible fraudulent webpages, such as misspelt words, and avoid clicking on suspicious links. If in doubt regarding the authenticity of electronic communications (i.e. email, texts and instant messages), personnel should report it to the authorities and/or in-house cybersecurity teams. Do not reply, download attachments or open any links.


THE WEEK AHEAD

Another significant date in the pro-democracy calendar is likely to incite a rally in the week ahead. Monday (21 June) will be another monthly anniversary of the 7/21 Yuen Long incident (2019), when a mob of white-clad alleged triad members attacked commuters and pro-democracy activists at the Yuen Long MTR station. This date generally inspires activists to gather outside the station to commemorate the victims on that day. In light of the pandemic and the NSL, activist mobilisations have been significantly subdued over the past year. However, with the police raid on the Apple Daily office continuing a trend deemed increasingly unacceptable to the activist agenda, the event itself could trigger activists to mobilise.

A rally would serve short-term tactical gains and be very symbolic, but ultimately unlikely to shape the space for political dialogue with the government. The rally that transpired on 16 June at Pacific Place could be replicated, but if not, it likely means that activists are preserving resources and likely to engage in relatively ad hoc mobilisations to keep the police off balance.


UPCOMING PROTESTS 18 – 24 June

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

  • 21 June: Memorial for the 21 July 2019 Yuen Long attack
  • 22 June: Memorial for Yin-lam Chan

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 11 – 17 June  

Saturday 12 June

1500: A small number of activists protested in Mong Kok district, Kowloon, on the second-year anniversary of an intense standoff between anti-extradition bill protesters and the police.

Tuesday 15 June

1200: An individual pro-democracy activist held an unannounced protest Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island to commemorate Marco Ling-kit Leung. The activist started the protest earlier than the scheduled time of 2100 to avoid encounters with the police. The activist laid down flowers and read a copy of the Apple Daily newspaper. 

Wednesday 16 June

1700-2300: Hundreds of black-clad activists assembled near Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island for a memorial for Marco Ling-kit Leung. They gathered at a site near Pacific Place, where Ling-kit fell from a height and died after hanging a protest banner during mass unrest during 2019. Mourners were surrounded by police officers who warned those participants not to breach social distancing measures. Officers filmed the scene and conducted stop and search operations on the pavement and in the nearby MTR station. No fines or arrests were made, according to police. Prominent pro-democracy figure Alexandra ‘Grandma’ Wong was also present. The gathering was considerably smaller than a similar one on the anniversary in 2020 that was attended by thousands defying social distancing rules. Despite a relatively low risk of contracting COVID-19, activists’ willingness to mobilise remains limited due to fear of arrest under the NSL.