HONG KONG MONITOR 23 April 2021

23 april 2021

April continues to be dominated with coronavirus (COVID-19) incident reports, shifting business interests more towards immediate concerns over resumption and scaling up operations. Over the monitoring cycle (16-23 April), the Hong Kong government imposed travel bans on flights between the territory and India, Pakistan and the Philippines in response to the emergence of new pathogen variants. Once this ban is lifted, the government is likely to extend quarantine periods from 21 to 28 days. While these three countries have been targeted, there is credible potential for similar bans being extended to other countries, including the US and UK, that have the more transmissible N501Y variant.

European Union (EU) efforts to impose sanctions against Hong Kong faltered after Hungary objected to it at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (19 April). Hungary’s opposition is in line with normal patterns of behaviour in relation to Hong Kong and by proxy to China. Budapest has opposed similar sanctions attempts including one proposed in March. Though not directly causative, Beijing’s significant investments into the EU member state’s infrastructure development projects does suggest there is correlation. It also suggests that China holds significant financial leverage over recipient states enabling Beijing to blunt political and economic threats aimed at radically changing policies and practices that are deemed a threat to the government.


GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

On Sunday (18 April), Beijing accused the US, UK, and EU of ‘unreasonable criticism’ and ‘malicious smearing’ in response to calls from their governments for the release of well-known pro-democracy activists imprisoned on Friday (16 April) over an unauthorised assembly during Hong Kong’s mass unrest in 2019. In a separate but related development, the EU’s plans to impose measures against Hong Kong in retaliation for Beijing’s sweeping electoral changes were on 16 April withdrawn after the measure failed to garner support from all 27 member states.

Hungary is believed to have opposed the measures, which included the suspension of extradition treaties between member states and the territory. The development indicates that measures against Hong Kong by foreign governments remain unlikely to move beyond verbal expressions of solidarity in the immediate-term outlook. EU measures appear to have been undermined by Hungary’s exceptionally pro-Beijing affiliation. However, Beijing’s statement on the pro-democracy activists suggests that tensions between China and Hong Kong authorities and foreign governments over this matter and others are likely to continue to dampen business sentiment for foreign companies operating in Hong Kong and undermine its attractiveness for investors.           

 

The Ramada Hong Kong Grand Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui where quarantined new arrivals are staying, 19 April 2021 / Apple Daily 


PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

On 18 April, the Hong Kong government announced a ban on all flights from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines for two weeks with effect from Tuesday (20 April) over concerns a new coronavirus (COVID-19) variant (N501Y) was entering the territory from these countries. According to a government statement, multiple imported COVID-19 cases carrying the N501Y variant have been detected among passengers arriving from the three affected countries during the past two weeks. Health officials recorded 29 imported coronavirus infections on 18 April, mostly involving people who had returned to Hong Kong from India. On 19 April, the government’s leading COVID-19 adviser recommended that the quarantine period for arrivals from the three countries be extended to 28 days from the present 21 days once the flight ban is lifted. 

At least 53 passengers on a flight from New Delhi to Hong Kong tested positive for COVID-19, according to local reports on Tuesday (20 April). The passengers arrived on a flight operated by Indian airline Vistara on 4 April, with the cases emerging over a three-week quarantining period. A number of cases have also been detected in flights from Mumbai, according to the authorities.

The ban on all flights from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines is indicative of the Hong Kong authorities’ declared policy for seeking to eradicate COVID-19 rather than manage the disease. The N501Y variant has already been recorded outside the three countries and can be expected to continue to spread widely.

The UK government has taken a different stance. Cases of the variant are expected to rise in the UK, which retains close commercial and social ties with India and Hong Kong. The British government has to date declined to place India, unlike Pakistan and the Philippines, on a ‘red list’ of countries that bars all arrivals apparently reflecting political rather than public health priorities. Any indication N501Y had entered Hong Kong from a UK-origin flight would likely result in an immediate and at least two-week ban on the airline and possibly all services. Further, this could potentially be followed by a 28-day enforced quarantine period for arriving passengers once the ban is lifted. Companies moving staff between the UK and Hong Kong should factor the implications of such an outcome into their planning.

Numerous imported COVID-19 cases, potentially comprising mutant strains, lend further credence to Hong Kong’s decision to ban flights from countries deemed ‘high risk’, including India. Continued imported cases from India in Hong Kong came despite the required provision of a negative virus test taken within 72 hours before boarding. The measures mirror bans recently imposed by New Zealand on flights from India over similar concerns, with imported cases also detected despite a pre-flight virus testing regime. It remains unclear whether faulty testing is to blame; Europol in February warned about the risks that fraudulent COVID-19 test certificates pose to commercial aviation. Despite a low caseload and increasing vaccination in Hong Kong, mutant variants and attendant travel restrictions are likely to remain an impediment to staff mobility in the medium-term outlook.  

Then on 21 April, Hong Kong for the first time in more than two weeks recorded no local infections, recording just one imported case originating from the Philippines, according to the Centre for Health Protection (CHP). However, the CHP is urging more stringent COVID-19 containment measures for the territory’s quarantine hotels over potential spread of the virus among new arrivals.

Authorities said that an individual, who returned from Dubai in March, likely became infected with the South African variant while quarantining at the Ramada Hong Kong Grand Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where two other guests on the same floor were identified as being infected with the same strain. Contamination probably occurred through door hooks which are difficult to clean and disinfect. Public health officials also suspect that poor ventilation in hotel corridors remain a plausible route of transmission and are recommending measures including more than the current three virus tests over the course of the quarantining period, extended travel bans from high-risk destinations, and extensions of quarantine from 21 to 28 days.


Hong Kong documentary producer Bao Choy at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building, 22 April 2021 /  Candice Chau / HKFP


LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

A Hong Kong court found Bao Choy, a producer for the RTHK media outlet, guilty on two counts of making false statements to obtain public records during research she was conducing for a documentary on the 2019 Yuen Long attacks. Bao Choy was fined HKD6,000. There were crowds outside the courthouse in support of the freelance RTHK producer. They chanted ‘Reporting is not a crime!’ There were no reports of arrests or violence from the unrest.

Soon after the sentencing, the Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the verdict. Reporters Without Borders, the global media-rights watchdog, also issued a condemnation. These organisations and the pro-democracy movement view this case as another example of the Hong Kong government suppressing media freedoms, which have become more restricted since the imposition of the national security law. More demonstrations related to the trials of dozens of other activists are very likely, though they are unlikely going to attract the same level of public attention than what occurred outside the West Kowloon courthouse on 22 April.


THE WEEK AHEAD

The current reporting period (23-29 April) is likely to see more attention focused on public health and travel related to COVID-19. Case numbers will undoubtedly dictate the application and extent of measures, more so now as the government is looking for complete eradication rather than disease management. A key situation to monitor will be the proliferation of the N501Y variant.

Local spread of the South African variant is likely to be of particular concern given recently published data indicating that the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine is 70 per cent less effective against this strain of the virus. Sinovac’s efficacy is not unusual compared to its rivals. Vaccines produced by Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and Pfizer also show low efficacy against the South African strain.

Nearby Macau already extended quarantine to 28 days for arrivals from India, Pakistan, and the Philippines as of Monday (19 April) and the local outbreak is likely to increase pressure on Hong Kong authorities to follow suit. Similar concerns around quarantine hotel leaks have notably been voiced in Australia, which has also largely managed to contain the spread of the virus. A progressive tightening of travel restrictions is likely in the near term unless local outbreaks are rapidly and effectively contained. Businesses should monitor the local pandemic situation and attendant government announcements for developments impacting staff mobility.


UPCOMING PROTESTS  23-29 April

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

29 April: Memorial for Hiu-yan Lo

30 April: Memorial for the 31 August 2019 Prince Edward station attacks

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 16-22 April

Wednesday 21 April

1300: An individual pro-democracy activist held a demonstration titled ‘Don't forget 721 - Yuen Long and You Put Shiba Inu’ at Yuen Long MTR Station Exit B - Nam Pin Wai, Yuen Long Town, New Territories. There was a small police presence in the vicinity of the station in anticipation of protest activity. There was no significant disruption to local area businesses and travel as a result of this protest.

Thursday 22 April

1200: A crowd appeared outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building, Kowloon, to show their support for an RTHK producer, who was on trial for making false statements to police in connection to an investigation on research she did into the 2019 Yuen Long attacks. The crowd chanted, ‘Reporting is not a crime!’ There were no reports of arrests or violence from the protests. This was a comparatively large gathering by pro-democracy activists, highlighting the extreme sensitivities over the government’s alleged suppression on the media. Further similar gatherings are likely in connection to the trial of several more pro-democracy activists.