HONG KONG MONITOR 9 April 2021

9 april 2021

The monitoring period (2-8 April) was rather subdued with the volume of incident reports focussed on the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation and the potential for the Hong Kong government to reinstate international travel bans. Imported cases and the penetration and proliferation of pathogen variants has been an ongoing public health challenge. However, it has become acutely problematic as vaccine rollouts come into full force. One outcome, so far, has been the temporary suspension of entry of Singapore Airlines flights from Singapore due to the importation of the virus on a single flight.

The trial of Jimmy Lai, the owner of the Apple Daily, and two other pro-democracy activists dominated the social media space, with activists condemning the trial after the individuals pleaded guilty to charges of violating the national security law (NSL). While the trials have also attracted the attention of foreign media and governments, there have been no substantive actions from the latter. Three other activists were found guilty on similar charges last week, and they, along with the aforementioned three, will have their sentencing day on 16 April. There are at least 47 other politicians and activists in custody and awaiting trial dates, and the assumption is that most or all of them will face similar guilty verdicts. While these events will garner a significant amount of political attention from foreign governments, international companies should also take note particularly as they relate to any changes in the legal and security environments.

Geopolitically, attention shifted to relations between China and the UK, after high-profile pro-democracy Hong Konger, Nathan Law, was reportedly granted political asylum in the UK. Law’s announcement occurred after the British government said that it would boost its efforts to settle Hong Kong nationals possessing the British National (Overseas) passport visa. Both developments triggered a sharp rebuke from Beijing that has ratcheted up bilateral tensions as well as raised concerns over retaliation impacting British commercial interests.

 

GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

On Thursday (8 April), Beijing accused the UK of sheltering ‘wanted criminals’ after well-known Hong Kong pro-democracy figure Nathan Law said he had been granted political asylum in the country. Beijing also accused the UK of meddling in Hong Kong and China affairs. Law had fled Hong Kong in July 2020 following the imposition of the national security law (NSL).

The development comes as the UK communities secretary announced the provision of help in accessing housing, education, and employment for Hong Kongers settling in the UK under the British National (Overseas) passport visa scheme. At the current rate, the number of visa applications is forecast to exceed the initial estimate of 154,000 arrivals in the scheme’s first year. Arrivals are likely to rapidly increase in tandem with easing of lockdown restrictions, according to the manager of one UK community group Jabez Lam, who estimated that 7,000 had already relocated.

The development is likely to raise bilateral tensions in the immediate term, with commercial retaliation impacting UK interests in Hong Kong possible. Increasing arrivals from Hong Kong to the UK are likely as overall pandemic conditions ease. Conditions facilitating relocation have likely improved through progress in immunisation programmes, as well as potential seasonal variation in COVID-19 infection rates; the UK’s caseload has greatly declined over the past few months.

Medical experts in Hong Kong are exerting pressure to replace orders for Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines with those produced by Johnson & Johnson over reports of extremely rare blood clots, adding that a possible removal of the British-Swedish vaccine is unlikely to prove a significant setback in the territory’s vaccine roll-out given availability of alternative products. Further vaccination progress will contribute towards a growing exodus of high-skilled talent from Hong Kong, denting the territory’s outlook regarding human capital.

Carrie Lam receives a dose of the Sinovac Biotech Ltd. Covid-19 vaccine, 22 February 2021,Bloomberg


PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

On Monday (5 April), the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) reported 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including one of an unknown source. CHP also reported 15 imported cases, including local nationals who had recently travelled from India, Pakistan and Philippines.

Meanwhile, an expatriate Hong Kong resident was mistakenly given the Sinovac vaccine despite booking the Pfizer-BioNTech one over a fortnight ago. David Allardice reportedly had been instructed to appear at the Kowloon Bay Sports Centre for his inoculation from the department of health. However, the centre was the incorrect one. Health officials at the centre also failed to notice the error, and proceeded to inoculate Allardice with the Chinese-made medicine. It is understood that Allardice suffered no significant side effects that compromised his overall health. Though this incident is cause for concern, it is an outlier. The vast majority of vaccine distribution in Hong Kong has taken place safely and securely.

On Tuesday (6 April), the CHP recorded seven new COVID-19 cases, three of them local and the others imported. The three local cases all had infection sources identified. The imported cases included three from India and one from Pakistan. On 8 April, the CHP recorded 10 cases, eight of which were imported.

Continuing reports of imported cases, particularly of mutant strains, have escalated calls by officials to impose travel bans on countries deemed high risk. The government suspended incoming flights from Singapore operated by Singapore Airlines, after one passenger tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival on Flight SQ882 on 31 March. Three other positive cases contracted the pathogen for not being compliant with disease precaution measures. Singapore Airlines flights have been barred entry until 16 April.

Variants of concern threaten to undermine progress made under the territory’s vaccination programme. More than 11,000 Hong Kong residents have received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since usage resumed on 5 April following a two-week suspension over defective packaging. Travel restrictions are likely to remain contingent on the COVID-19 risk profile of countries of departure. Businesses deploying staff to or from Hong Kong should monitor the emergence and spread of variants of concern as they impact mobility.


A police officer stands guard outside High Court in Hong Kong, 18 February 2021, AP


LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

On Wednesday (7 April), prominent pro-democracy figure and Apple Daily newspaper-owner Jimmy Lai and two other activists pleaded guilty to charges of participation in an unauthorised assembly during mass anti-government unrest in 2019. The guilty plea comes a week after Lai and six other activists were found guilty in a separate court case over unauthorised assembly. Sentences in both court cases will be handed down at a later point in time, with five years’ imprisonment as the maximum possible punishment. Lai is currently remanded in custody for a further separate case involving charges of collusion with foreign forces under the NSL.

Court cases involving Lai are typically high-profile and garner international scrutiny. The United Kingdom and the United States have been particularly vocal in condemning previous cases.

Continued attention to legal action against Lai and other well-known pro-democracy is likely to elicit further censure by foreign governments, with the potential for diplomatic and commercial reprisal. Businesses should monitor court cases, especially those relating to the NSL, and assess commercial ramifications of changes in Hong Kong’s legal and political environment. Sentences viewed as overly harsh will very likely be higher in impact.

 

THE WEEK AHEAD

The week ahead (9-15 April) is unlikely going to see any significant deviation downwards to the current geopolitical, political, security and health risk dynamics. Focus will overwhelmingly centre on the Hong Kong government’s efforts at reining in COVID-19 as vaccine rollouts continue, boosting public and business confidence. Should penetration and proliferation of mutant strains rise, however, the Hong Kong government is likely to incrementally and tactically impose mobility restrictions, both domestically and internationally.

Other impediments to consider are any issues arising over side effects and efficacy of foreign-made vaccines, such as the one produced by AstraZeneca. Any stoppage of this vaccine will be a set-back, but it is unlikely to halt the positive trajectory of the territory’s inoculation programme.

In terms of local grassroots level protests, there was a momentary pause over the past monitoring cycle largely due to the long weekend holiday. We anticipate protests, albeit low-level and more symbolic, to pick up in the week ahead, especially in the run up to sentencing date (16 April) of Lai and other activists. See details below.


UPCOMING PROTESTS 9-15 April

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

15 April: Memorial for Ling-kit Leung; time and venue details to be confirmed.

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 2-8 April

Sunday 4 April

1500: Members of some social organisations, including Stake, Tiananmen Mothers, the Social People’s League and the United Workers’ League, among others, presented flowers outside the Central Government Complex HKSAR, Tamar, Hong Kong Island, during a gathering titled ‘Democratic Martyrs Immortal’ and ‘Blood-Stained Demeanor’. Event organisers made speeches and called on the government to allow them to hold the annual Tiananmen Square memorial event in Victoria Park on 4 June.  There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel.  

Thursday 8 April

1300: A lone pro-democracy activist held a protest titled ‘Chow Tsz-lok's Death 17 Months – Tseung Kwan O and You Lunch’ at PopCorn mall, Tseung Kwan O, New Territories. This protest did not cause significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.