HONG KONG MONITOR 4 June 2021

4 JUNE 2021

The aggregate sum of security reporting over the monitoring period (4-10 May) paid a significant amount of attention on the potential for mass public gatherings connected to the annual Tiananmen Square vigil, which traditionally takes place at Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Park on 4 June. The Hong Kong Police have officially banned vigil at Victoria Park as well as any related gatherings. Despite the ban, there were momentary events of defiance by activists. As of Friday (4 June), there had been reports of about a dozen activists defying the ban orders and gathering at the park. Lone activists have also throughout the day and evening been peacefully holding their own commemorative events across the territory.

Data privacy and government surveillance concerns came to the fore of the reporting period, when on Tuesday (1 June) the Executive Council approved rules stipulating that individuals who procure pre-paid SIM cards will have to register their legal names, identity card number and date of birth. While the government maintains that the data will only be used for criminal investigations, this development is on par with trending expectations over increased government encroachment into the matters of private citizens as well as foreign nationals. Furthermore, IT experts have criticised the measure’s potential for placing limits on who can participate in telecommunications and the attendant adverse economic impacts this could have. The measure will take affect from March 2022.

In public health and safety matters, an outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Guangdong province, China, prompted the local authorities to close parts of a district in the capital Guangzhou and Foshan city, and subsequently cancel hundreds of flights and suspend many public transport services. Many of these cases were of the ‘Indian’ (or Delta) variant. While mobility restrictions have been imposed to contain transmission, the outbreak has caused further delays to reopening cross border travel links with neighbouring Hong Kong while also threatening air links to many regional countries and international destinations. Companies seeking to deploy staff between southern China and Hong Kong should recognise that travel restrictions are likely to remain in place until the latest outbreak is fully contained.

 

GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

Four or more UK nationals have received consular assistance for ‘mistreatment or torture’ they experienced while under detention in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, according to a South China Morning Post (SCMP) report on Sunday (30 May). The cases emerged in the monthly consular data released by the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

The FCDO said that between mass unrest in 2019 and the summer of 2020, when the national security law (NSL) was imposed, ‘less than five’ such cases were recorded in each of four different months, without providing further details. The last time the consulate had dealt with and reported such a case was in 2017. One of the cases reportedly involved Simon Cheng, the UK consulate staffer who was seized by law enforcement officials from mainland China at the mainland-managed section of Kowloon’s high-speed rail terminus, as he was returning from a business trip.

Another case involved a British human rights activist who claimed he was an observer during a police siege on Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University in November 2019. Some of the cases in the summer of 2020 were not politically motivated, according to the report, which cited sources with knowledge of the matter. Hong Kong’s Security Bureau responded to the SCMP by saying that allegations of torture or mistreatment by Hong Kong law enforcement were serious and necessitated more information to initiate a probe.

The allegations will further raise concerns around the treatment of British nationals in Hong Kong given Beijing’s increased control over the territory and political tensions between the UK and China. Frictions are likely to increase in tandem with a likely surge in the UK’s intake of Hong Kongers as part of its settlement scheme ahead of the enforcement of Hong Kong’s ‘exit ban’ law as of 1 August 2021, as well as easing travel restrictions as the pandemic wanes and immunisation programmes progress. British organisations and personnel deemed Beijing-critical are likely under heightened risk of surveillance by authorities given the current political environment.


Hong Kong Police hold the 'yellow banner' warning activists against publicly gathering or risk detention and prosecution, 4 June 2021


PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

On Saturday (29 May), an outbreak of COVID-19 in Guangdong province led to the local authorities to close parts of a district in the capital Guangzhou and subsequently cancel hundreds of flights and suspend many public transport services. The number of newly detected infections remains low among the province’s estimated 114 million population, with around 30 cases recorded as of 29 May. However, the Chinese authorities said that many new cases are from the so-called ‘Indian’ (or Delta) variant, which appears to be more highly transmissible than previous recorded infections.

In addition to locking down sections of Guangzhou’s central Liwan district, a number of cases have also been reported in Foshan city, adjacent to the provincial capital. According to flight data tracking sites at least 520 flights, or around 40 per cent of the total services, were cancelled on 31 May morning from Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN).

More movement and other restrictions are set to be applied in other areas of Guangdong if cases of the virus spread across the province and within Guangzhou.    

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday (1 June) defended plans announced on 31 May to ban residents not vaccinated against COVID-19 from dining, education, business, and entertainment venues if infections spike again. Following Lam’s announcement, vaccine bookings soared on 31 May to 37,700 people, up 40 per cent from the previous day. Lam’s statements incentivising immunisation against the virus underscore the public health and commercial implications of continuing vaccine hesitancy in Hong Kong.

The government had (as of 1 June) administered 2.4 million COVID-19 vaccine doses since its immunisation programme was launched in February. Additionally, Hong Kong has shortened its hotel quarantine period from 21 to 14 days for fully vaccinated travellers from the UK, effective from Friday (4 June). The measure comes as authorities moved the UK to a lower grade of severity in its COVID-19 situation. Travellers are required to have been vaccinated with a locally approved vaccine, including inoculations by AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer-BioNTech. The developments come as the Centre for Health Protection on 1 June reported six imported COVID-19 cases, as well as one local case.


LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

On 30 May, police arrested a local pro-democracy activist known as ‘Grandma Wong’ in connection to a protest march to the Beijing liaison office on Hong Kong Island. It is understood that Alexandra Wong had launched a march to protest the police ban on the 4 June vigil gathering for the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, which is scheduled to take place at Victoria Park. Hong Kong Police also prohibited associated mass gatherings citing public health regulations connected to the pandemic. However, Wong had turned up at the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai district with a protest sign reading ’32, June 4 Tiananmen’s lament’ and a yellow umbrella, which is a symbol of the pro-democracy movement. Activists have denounced the arrest on numerous social media platforms, and have called for mobilisations to support Wong as well as to carry on with the annual vigil.

On Wednesday (2 June), Hong Kong’s June 4th Museum, dedicated to commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, announced a temporary closure due to a licensing investigation. Officers from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) entered the museum on 1 June claiming the establishment had not obtained a public entertainment venue licence and was possibly in violation of regulations, according to a statement from the museum. The FEHD said its probe was launched after it had received a complaint that the venue operated without a licence. The museum, which is run by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement of China, said it would seek legal counsel and chose to protect the safety of its personnel and visitors.

In a separate but related development, local media reports claimed that people wearing black, holding candles, or chanting slogans in the vicinity of Victoria Park on 4 June to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident may be arrested for taking part in an unauthorised assembly. More than 1,000 anti-riot officers will be deployed to patrol the area around the park, according to local media. Police presence across Hong Kong will be bolstered.

The Executive Council on 1 June approved new rules stipulating that users of pre-paid local SIM cards will have to register real names as of March 2022, ostensibly to allow law enforcement agencies to access users’ personal information when investigating crimes. Those who purchase pre-paid SIM cards will from March need to provide their name, identity card number, date of birth, and a copy of their identification document. Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau announced that the new rules allow for a higher cap on the number of SIM cards individuals and organisations can use than was previously suggested. Individuals will be restricted to 10 cards per mobile service provider while businesses will be restricted to 25 per provider.

It should be stressed that registration of personal data linked to SIM card purchases is a widely held international practice intended to support anti-monetary laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism financing (CTF) efforts. Given Hong Kong’s reputation as a critical global financial services centre, it would be prudent for the authorities to close loop holes in order shore up AML and CTF regulations.

Linking of SIM cards with personal information will deepen data privacy and surveillance concerns in the territory, particularly as they relate to enforcement of the Beijing-imposed national security law (NSL). Pre-existing concerns around surveillance from local and mainland Chinese authorities will likely be reinforced; IT experts have already criticised the measure’s potential for placing limits on who can participate in telecommunications and the attendant adverse economic impacts this could have. Businesses should assess the impact of the new rules on data privacy and security, as well as on the safety of their staff. Remind personnel to exercise caution in communications given surveillance risks.

Ahead of the Tiananmen Square vigil, the Hong Kong police deployed at least 3,000 officers, with thousands more in reserve, to prevent any large-scale gatherings and related activities. The anniversary has been marked each year since 1990 in Hong Kong, drawing huge crowds in peaceful vigils and other displays of remembrance that have long angered China’s ruling communist party. Following the imposition of China’s NSL in late June 2020 those participating in such gatherings risk being subject to potentially harsh penalties, including long terms of imprisonment. The 2020 vigil was banned under COVID-19 regulations that barred gatherings of more than three individuals, although many thousands defied these rules that year to stage a mass ceremony in Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Park.

The public response to the 4 June vigil will serve as a metric in assessing to what extent the NSL and Beijing’s openly stated determination to effectively end all unsanctioned opposition to central and local government control has succeeded. Very few overt public protests or any other display of defiance against the two administrations are anticipated on 4 June or through the following weekend given the large police presence and the near certainty of arrest and probable imprisonment. Nevertheless, there is the possibility small groups or individuals may use this iconic date to make what would be a sacrificial gesture of resistance to gain greater international attention. Such actions, if peaceful, could result in further pressure being applied to Hong Kong in the form of sanctions or the withdrawal of any remaining trade or related privileges. Foreign companies should assess how such actions may affect their commercial interests and operations in Hong Kong over the short- to medium-term outlook.


Students clean the "Pillar of Shame" statue at the University of Hong Kong on the 32nd anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, in Hong Kong, 4 June 2021 / Reuters / Lam Yik

 

THE WEEK AHEAD

On 4 June, the police deployed around 7,000 officers across the territory in an effort to prevent or deter any overt demonstrations marking the anniversary of the killing of many hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on this date in 1989. Hundreds of police are deployed in Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Park, the traditional site for vigils marking the 1989 events. China’s national security laws NSL provide for long terms of imprisonment for any unsanctioned protests.

The detention of Chow Hang Tung, vice-chair of the group that has organised the annual Tiananmen vigils, on the same day reinforced this threat. By mid-afternoon there were no overt protests or direct challenges to the authorities other than a number of low-key and oblique events on university campuses or other non-public areas. It is possible that more direct protests may occur after dark, although the police will have anticipated this possibility and have prepared contingency plans to counter any such actions.

There is little likelihood the anniversary will result in any disruption to business or travel within Hong Kong in the week ahead. The main impact so far has been international reaction in terms of foreign countries or individuals using this highly symbolic date to announce policies or open debates certain to anger China and likely lead to some form of retaliatory action.

COVID-19 case numbers are expected to continue with the current trend of reporting single-digit case numbers in the week ahead. As of 4 June, the authorities recorded only one new infection daily over the previous monitoring cycle (28 May to 3 June). Case numbers and hospitalisations are expected to decline especially after the Lam administration’s recent clear-cut incentivisation targeting those reluctant to get vaccinated.


UPCOMING PROTESTS 4 – 10 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:

4 June: Annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident

8 June: Memorial for Tsz-lok Chow


PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 28 May – 3 June  

Sunday 30 May

1500: A lone pro-democracy activist marched from the Southorn Playground, Wan Chai district to the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Sai Ying, Hong Kong Island. Locally known as ‘Grandma Wong’, Alexandra Wong arrived at the meeting location with a protest sign reading, ’32, June 4 Tiananmen’s Lament’ and a yellow umbrella.

Monday 31 May

1900: An individual pro-democracy activist held a protest at Langham Place, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, titled ‘Shopping and Dining with you (831 events)’. The event was held to commemorate the 31 August 2019 Prince Edward station attacks. This protest did not cause any significant disruption to local area businesses and travel. There was no police presence at the demonstration, which passed off peacefully.

Varied: A small number of activists participated in a protest commemorating the 31 August 2019 Prince Edward station attacks. Protesters assembled at around 2000 local time outside Prince Edward MTR Station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon. At 2100 a Yuen Long district councillor held up a box near the station to distribute flowers to the public. The district councillor was shortly afterwards surrounded by 15 to 20 police officers, taking the councillor and their assistant to the police station. Police later released both. Police reinforcement soon arrived at the scene in large numbers. There were numerous stop and search operations in the vicinity, though none were arrested. Protest participants peacefully dispersed at approximately 2230.