HONG KONG MONITOR 5 March 2021
The monitoring period (26 February to 5 March) began with a slight shift away from broader geopolitical developments towards domestic issues centred on the detention and subsequent trials of 47 opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists. Police launched mass arrest operations on Sunday (28 February). Since then there has been heavy focus on these trials, and continual speculation on the fate of other opposition elements as well as Beijing and Hong Kong’s relations with foreign governments, namely Western ones who have voiced strong condemnation. This is indeed a significant development in Hong Kong that is cause for concern from security, political and operational risks dynamics.
GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS
On Friday (5 March), China’s Premier Li Keqiang told delegates at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the country’s legislature, that the central government would ‘resolutely guard against and deter’ interference by external forces in Hong Kong. Li also said only ‘patriots’ approved by Beijing will be permitted to stand in future elections in the territory, a move widely expected after China directly intervened in Hong Kong in June 2020 following a year of often violent street protests and other acts of what Beijing views as a threat to its authority and security.
While the de facto eradication of opposition politics in Hong Kong has attracted most of the overseas attention to date, Li’s emphasis on the perceived threat posed by unidentified external forces will be of greater operational concern to international business interests in the territory. The central government has not offered any definition as to what it means by ‘foreign interference’, nor is it likely to do so. This leaves international companies vulnerable to pressure from the local and central administrations as they seek to conform to laws and opaque norms that are likely to be opposed by their home governments.
Foreign companies closely associated with Hong Kong may also face reputational risks as a result of meeting their local obligations to legal decisions viewed as superseding pre-exiting laws and against the wider interest of many of the territory’s residents. These pressures can be expected to intensify once pro-democracy politicians and activists face trial later this year on subversion and other charges under China’s imposed national security law.
Thousands of lawmakers gathered as the annual NPC meeting began on Friday (5 March) in Beijing, 5 March 2021 / Getty Images
PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19
On Thursday (4 March), the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) confirmed nine new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, including three assessed to be of foreign origin. A Philippine national was assessed to have the N501Y strain, bringing the total to 51. Among this group, 34 have been of the UK variant, seven of the South African and four of the Brazilian. The CHP is still determining the strains of six other foreign cases. The two other discoveries include an Indonesian national and a Hong Kong citizen, who had recently returned from Pakistan.
The authorities carried out three separate ‘ambush lockdowns’ on Wednesday (3 March). Locations are as follows:
- Mee Wah Building in Chai Wan (Eastern district, Hong Kong Island). Lockdown imposed from 1900 on 3 March.
- Block 1 of Goodview Garden, Tuen Mun (Tuen Mun district, New Territories). Lockdown imposed from 1900 on 3 March.
- Block D of Honour Building, To Kwa Wan (Kowloon City District, Kowloon). Lockdown imposed from 2030 on 3 March.
The government also announced that visitors to the Central Government Complex (Admiralty, Hong Kong Island) will be ‘strongly advised’ to use the ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ track and trace app when entering buildings. Media personnel will also have to use the app.
Police raise a warning flag intended for democracy activists outside the court in West Kowloon, 4 March 2020 / Vincent Yu / AP
LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS
Hundreds of people gathered outside a court in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district on Monday (1 March) to support 47 opposition politicians and pro-democracy activists detained on various charges under the national security law (NSL). The detainees were arrested overnight on Sunday (28 February) in the largest single arrest operation of pro-democracy activists. The arrests are linked to unofficial ‘primary’ elections held in July 2020 that Beijing characterised as ‘subverting state power,’ an offence under the NSL that carries a life prison sentence. The police have warned supporters of those being arraigned that they also face charges under the NSL.
Also on 1 March, there was one protest at the International Finance Centre (IFC) Atrium Mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island. Additionally, a small number of activists gathered (on 28 February) outside Prince Edward MTR Station in Mong Kok district, Kowloon, to commemorate the 31 August 2019 Prince Edward station incident.
The protest outside West Kowloon court in Cheung Sha Wan district is the largest for months, and any police action against the peaceful demonstrators is likely to add to the already strong and growing condemnation of the detentions by mainly Western governments, including the US, the UK and the European Union bloc.
Additional sanctions are unlikely as they would mainly affect Hong Kong residents, but the offer of ‘sanctuary’ in the form of preferential visas and other initiatives enabling local residents to resettle overseas may be offered. Western companies with close ties to Hong Kong may also face increasing pressure from their home countries to support peaceful democratic action, placing them and their staff in complex and often irreconcilable positions with regard to the local and central governments in the immediate outlook and beyond.
On Tuesday (2 March), hundreds of police officers deployed around West Kowloon district court in Kowloon on the second day of the trial. Four defendants were transferred to hospital after they became unwell during their lengthy hearings. Some social media activists and pro-democracy media critics have accused the court of deliberately humiliating the defendants and attempting to erode their respective resistance.
The treatment of the detainees is certain to add to the already strong and growing condemnation of the arrests by mainly Western countries, including the US, the UK and the European Union. However, to date this has been a rhetorical rather material response as many within the Hong Kong government have already been sanctioned for earlier actions viewed as anti-democratic.
Bail proceedings continued on Wednesday (3 March) at the West Kowloon district court without any reports of any large protests. However, an individual pro-democracy activist held a march from Victoria Park, Causeway Bay to IFC mall in Central district, Hong Kong Island, in solidarity with those being detained (see details below).
The proceedings against the 47 detainees are the most sweeping since the imposition of the NSL. They also highlight how elements of the NSL have supplanted aspects of Hong Kong’s Common Law-based legal system. The NSL places the onus on the defendants, rather than the prosecution, to prove that they will not be a security risk or a threat to the government if released on bail. Authorities accuse the activists of planning to depose the government by conducting an unofficial primary poll to determine Legislative Council candidates in July 2020.
The development suggests that Beijing may be seeking to avoid overt changes to the territory’s electoral process, instead opting for the wholesale imprisonment of political opposition remaining in the territory. The EU has threatened unspecified measures in response to extreme changes to the electoral process. However, foreign governments will likely view the proceedings against the 47 detainees with almost equal levels of concern. Asylum programmes such as the BN(O) passport scheme by the UK may accelerate in response to the proceedings. Recent propaganda efforts by Chinese state-owned news outlets such as CGTN aimed at dissuading Hong Kongers from making use of the UK’s scheme by highlighting the UK’s comparative failures in tackling the COVID-19 crisis, among other issues, suggest Beijing’s concerns around a continuing exodus of local high-skill talent.
THE WEEK AHEAD
The trial of the 47 will be the subject of intense scrutiny locally and internationally. At the grassroots level, there have already been protests, including one that occurred over two consecutive days when hundreds of people mobilised. These events marked a clear signal that the wider pro-democracy movement is not entirely exhausted but more selective in its activities. It is evident that the detentions have crossed the threshold of tolerance for incitement even against the backdrop of COVID-19 restrictions and even the NSL. This is a good indicator to strongly suggest that further sweeping arrest operations, or even a negative outcome of these current trials, elevates the likelihood of similar mobilisations in the coming weeks.
In public health and safety matters, COVID-19 continues to dominate the volume of incident reporting. However, this is increasingly done in a positive light. As the Hong Kong government gradually relaxes measures coupled with the vaccine rollouts, and case numbers continue to drop, there is growing confidence to normalise activities among the public and business communities. Nevertheless, the situation is still very fluid and outbreaks are still occurring, albeit with low-digit numbers, prompting the government to utilise stringent public control measures in the form of very localised ‘ambush lockdowns’. Over the current monitoring cycle, this trend will continue.
Geopolitically, the Communist Party of China (CPC) started its annual congress where it will present its five-year plan. This will layout the government’s strategic ambitions and goals with clear implications on relations with its foreign strategic allies and competitors. In light of the enduring a trade war with the US and its allies over the past four years coupled with events taking place in Hong Kong, Beijing has taken an increasingly stronger stance against actual and perceived ‘foreign interference’, which has and will elevate a broad spectrum of political risks for companies in the coming year. Our Asia Desk will investigate elements of the five-year plan and provide analysis that will be incorporated as an additional feature in our weekly China Brief service from Wednesday (10 March).
See details of upcoming protests below.
UPCOMING PROTESTS 6 – 11 March
No protests have been announced.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 26 February – 5 March
Sunday 28 February
Varied: A small number of activists held a protest outside Prince Edward MTR Station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, commemorating the 31 August 2019 Prince Edward station incident, in which Hong Kong police allegedly attacked protesters and non-participants at Prince Edward station. There was no significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.
1500: Activists held a demonstration Ka Fuk Estate Car Park near Fanling Highway, New Territories, commemorating the death of a fellow activist. There was no significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.
Monday 1 March
1315: A lone pro-democracy activist held a protest dubbed ‘Lunch with Hong Kongers’ at International Finance Centre (IFC) Atrium mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island. There was no significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.
Tuesday 2 March
1315: An individual activist held a ‘Lunch with You’ protest at Pacific Place shopping mall in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, in solidarity with the 47 politicians and pro-democracy activists currently on trial at the West Kowloon court in Kowloon. There was no significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.
Wednesday 3 March
1200: An individual pro-democracy activist held a protest march from Victoria Park, Causeway Bay to IFC mall in Central, Hong Kong Island, in solidarity with the 47 politicians and pro-democracy activists currently on trial at the West Kowloon court in Kowloon.