HONG KONG MONITOR 7 May 2021

7 may 2021

Coronavirus (COVID-19) developments dominated event reporting over the monitoring cycle (30 April to 6 May), followed by the government’s attempts to clamp down on online misinformation and the trial of Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy campaigner who was given an additional sentence for violating the national security law (NSL).

Wong’s sentencing garnered a significant amount of attention in the social media sphere, including on encrypted messaging platforms, but was considerably subdued in public media, likely due to concerns over potential violations of the NSL. The timing of the verdict was also curious, but likely planned, given that it coincided with a G7 meeting where one of the agenda items was China. Nonetheless, Wong’s trial and the dozens of other similar ones, serves as another stark reminder of Beijing’s increasing assertiveness over Hong Kong.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that her administration was launching new efforts at reining in fake news and misinformation campaigns in the media. There are plans to introduce tighter legislation, undoubtedly underpinned by the NSL, which is causing concern among local and international press freedom advocates and media organisations. Foreign news organisations providing coverage on events assessed as politically sensitive or critical of the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong will undoubtedly come under the full weight of government scrutiny.

Pivoting towards public health matters. The government lifted its flight ban with the UK and Ireland as infection rates in both countries continue to drop. However, arriving travellers will still have to go through a 14-day quarantine at a Hong Kong hotel, followed by a seven-day quarantine at their residence. Australia, New Zealand and Singapore were among other ‘low-risk’ countries where travel restrictions were eased. For the full list, please visit the Hong Kong government’s coronavirus information portal.


GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

Hong Kong’s economy grew by 7.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2021, according to official figures released on Monday (3 May). This marks an end to six consecutive quarters of negative growth, the territory’s longest recession in decades. The US-China trade war, protracted mass unrest, and the COVID-19 pandemic drove the protracted economic downturn.

Renewed growth has been spurred by a rapid rebound in exports driven by recovering demand in China and the United States. As the export-oriented mainland economy improves, Hong Kong’s prospects are expected to follow. Financial Secretary Paul Chan forecast full-year GDP growth of 3.5 to 5.5 per cent in 2021. The tourism industry, however, is still expected to lag significantly behind the export of goods given pandemic-induced disruption to the supply chain.

Domestically, Hong Kong’s unemployment rate is at approximately 7 per cent, the highest in 17 years, and likely to remain relatively high through the second quarter. A drop in the unemployment rate will very much depend on vaccine rollouts and keeping case numbers low. 

Businesses sentiment will remain mixed even amid accelerating assimilation of Hong Kong into mainland China, as well as slow progress in the territory’s immunisation programme, particularly as organisations will have different strategies that have buffeted the impact of COVID or will accommodate them accordingly. Boosting the vaccination rate is critical to borders re-opening with the mainland as well as with other foreign countries.


File photo: A British Airways plane in the Hong Kong International Airport, 5 May 2021 / Chris Sutton


PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

On Monday (3 May), the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) confirmed one local COVID-19 transmission and two imported, including nationals from Indonesia and Russia. Both foreign patients, who are employed as domestic workers, were asymptomatic. In related developments, the ministry of labour is set to launch a mandatory vaccination programme for the territory’s 370,000 foreign domestic workers in response to several imported cases found in that specific group of workers.

While Hong Kong’s vaccination programme and COVID-19 containment measures have been relatively successful in keeping case numbers low, there are very legitimate and serious concerns over the penetration of variants from abroad. Perhaps more worrying for foreign workers in the domestic services sector is that the ministry is making employment status conditional upon receiving vaccination.

The plan has come under criticism by labour groups such as the Asian Migrants Coordinating Body, who deems it discriminatory and warned that it sets a worrying precedent. Under these new regulations, domestic workers need to be tested by 9 May and vaccinated before contract renewals. Incoming foreign workers will have to show proof of vaccination when they apply for work visas.

On Tuesday (4 May), Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said that the territory’s compulsory quarantine period may be reduced for fully vaccinated travellers. Chan’s remarks came as lawmakers expressed concerns over the lack of incentives for Hong Kongers to be immunised. On 3 May, about 971,950 people received their first dose, and 557,721 people were fully vaccinated.

Also on 4 May, the government announced the ban on all flights originating in the UK and the Irish Republic would be lifted on Friday (7 May), allowing only those with a residence permit the opportunity to return to the territory. The ban was imposed on 22 December 2020 in response to the threat from a COVID-19 variant then assessed as endemic in the UK. Infection, hospitalisation and mortality rates in Britain have since been significantly reduced due to a  combination of prolonged lockdowns and the mass vaccination of the eligible population.

As of 7 May, the ban was lifted. Local residents arriving in Hong Kong will be required to produce a negative COVID-19 test results obtained less than 72 hours prior to boarding and proof of a 21-day quarantine hotel booking. There is no indication when non-residents will be permitted to travel to Hong Kong.

More than 1,000 Hong Kong citizens and permanent residents have been stranded in the UK. They will be allowed to return but will still have to enter into a mandatory 14-day quarantine at a hotel upon arrival and a seven-day quarantine at their residence. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Cathay Pacific are preparing to restart direct flights to Hong Kong.

The CHP recorded six new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday (5 May). Concerns around potential community transmission have increased after two domestic helpers with no recent travel history tested positive for the N501Y variant. Then on 6 May, the CHP reported two imported COVID-19 cases, including a Philippine national and an Indonesian citizen. Both cases were asymptomatic. 

In non-coronavirus developments, the CHP announced on Thursday (6 May) that there was an outbreak of upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) at Cusahk Thomas Cheung Kindergarten, Ma On Shan, Sha Tin, New Territories. A CHP official said that those infected are exhibiting similar symptoms to coronavirus, requiring students, staff and teachers to undergo compulsory testing for the latter.

So far, there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases detected. The CHP has not given any indication of URTI spread outside this node. However, it has advised the public to maintain good personal hygiene. School activities and operations have been suspended for the next five days as the authorities execute cleansing of the site.


The Hong Kong Public Broadcasting (RTHK) building, 7 April 2021 / HKFP


LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

Hong Kong authorities are warning the public of a new scam that has defrauded citizens of millions of Hong Kong dollars. According to police, there have been about 15 cases involving fraudsters posing as mainland Chinese officials who contact their victims and threaten arrest with false allegations of violating the national security law (NSL). The victims were even sent an image of a fake arrest warrant and details on the identity of the investigating officer as proof of the legitimacy of the case.

The fraudsters would then demand their victims to deposit sums of money into an online bank account in order for the allegations to be dropped. Two victims, aged 65 and 70 years old, were defrauded of HK2.2 million (USD280,000) and HK9 million (USD1,100,000.00), respectively. Details of the 13 other cases were not publicly disclosed. All of the victims were contacted via text message on their mobile phones.

Such phone scams are very common. However, since the imposition of the NSL, Hong Kongers have become more acutely aware of the severity of punishment for any transgressions and sensitive to any public and online activities that may draw attention from the authorities. Even allegations of violations by fake authorities is enough leverage to force compliance by unsuspecting groups to any scams.

There have been several COVID-19 and vaccinate-related email and phone confidence scams over the past year, and this NSL fraud is another evolution aimed at targeting vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly. For those in the territory, report any suspicious emails and texts to in-company IT/cybersecurity teams. Never provide any personal or financial information in response to a request that is unexpected.

On 4 May, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the government is working on ‘fake news’ laws to address ‘misinformation, hatred and lies’. No timetable was specified for the legislation. The announcement comes a day after public broadcaster RTHK reported that it was unable to renew the contract of its journalist Nabela Qoser, widely recognised for her tough questioning of Lam and other officials during 2019’s mass unrest. RTHK has also started deleting some of its archived content on YouTube and other social media platforms.

Plans to introduce legislation ostensibly targeting misinformation will deepen concerns around increasing risks to media organisations in the territory since the imposition of the NSL. Organisations with media coverage deemed unfavourable or critical towards the government will likely face increasing legal, financial, and reputational repercussions. It is not clear to what extent the laws will also apply to self-media, or social media content created and spread by individual/personal accounts.

Similar legislation in countries such as Vietnam have forced foreign social media companies such as Facebook to comply with increasing volumes of censorship requests under significant pressure by authorities and scrutiny by foreign stakeholders. Businesses should monitor the passage of the law and advise staff to exercise heightened caution in content-sharing over social media to mitigate the risks.

On 6 May, a Hong Kong court sentenced leading pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong to 10 months’ imprisonment for participating in a banned 2020 vigil to mark the 4 June 1989 anniversary of the violent suppression of protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  Three other activists were sentenced to up to six months on similar charges, with a further 20 due to face local courts later this month. The Tiananmen vigil has been held each year since 1989 and many thousands took part in the peaceful 2020 ceremony, held before China imposed its NSL on Hong Kong.

The prison sentence imposed on Wong is in addition to a 13.5-month term he is currently serving over his participation in an unlawful anti-government rally in June 2019. He is also awaiting trial under the NSL on charges of breaching the NSL for his alleged role in an unofficial vote to select opposition candidates for a subsequently postponed election. While the local response to the sentencing was muted by concerns over the NSL, international reaction can be expected to add to the already high level of tension between many Western nations and China and the Hong Kong governments.


THE WEEK AHEAD

The positive trajectory of the COVID-19 situation will likely continue over the monitoring period (7-13 May), particularly as the administration pushes forward with vaccine rollouts and its tight disease control measures. As international travel opens with Australia, Singapore, UK and Ireland, there will undoubtedly be close monitoring of the pathogen, particularly for more virulent strains. Low case numbers and minimal to no penetration of foreign variants will undoubtedly influence the government to accelerate easing of restrictions, which will bode well economically.

Adversaries of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments’ have been monitoring Wong’s trial and those of others. His trials and sentences coincided with a meeting of G7 countries that sought consensus among key western nations on how to counter China’s assertive foreign policy and human rights record. Wong’s high global profile serves to ‘humanise’ the issue, and is likely to prompt further sanctions against individuals or institutions in China and Hong Kong, with the corresponding likelihood of countermeasures by Beijing against national and commercial interests of any country involved. Diplomatic warnings and additional condemnation are likely over the monitoring period rather the imposition of targeted sanctions, particularly as the Chinese and Hong Kong economies open up.

 

UPCOMING PROTESTS 7 - 13 May

Nothing significant to report.

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 30 April-6 May

Nothing significant to report.