HONG KONG MONITOR 30 April 2021

30 April 2021

Prospects of authorities arbitrarily clamping down on international travel due to changes in immigration legislation that took place over the reporting period (23– 29 April) have generated significant levels of concern and condemnation from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, lawyers and foreign governments. The implications on cross-border travel for Hong Kongers and expatriates could be severe as the authorities could be granted virtually unlimited power to impose entry and exit bans. Hong Kong’s Security Bureau justified the legislation by claiming that it would only target illegal inbound immigrants; however, the fluid interpretation of the bill allows for broad application of ban orders. And its passage and future enforcement will impact geopolitically as it will alter relations with Australia, Canada, European Union (EU), UK and US. Locally, law firms and associations have been threatened with punitive action should their objections cross the government’s tolerance thresholds.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government’s vigilance in containing COVID-19  spread is showing positive outcomes, allowing for the introduction of additional relaxation measures and reviving discussion on reopening an air corridor with Singapore. However, concerns over pathogen proliferation at ‘super-spreader’ events have given justification to the authorities to refuse activists to hold the annual Tiananmen Square vigil at Victoria Park on 4 June. In 2020, thousands of Hong Kongers were still able to gather at the iconic park, albeit for a briefer period than prior to the pandemic, and against the government’s ban. This is an important date in the activist calendar, and likely more so this year, given recent government actions that are eroding certain democratic freedoms previously enjoyed by generations of Hong Kongers. The new immigration bill is a lightening rod capable of mobilising activists in the run-up to and for the Tiananmen Square remembrance day.

For the current monitoring period (30 April – 6 May), pro-democracy activists are calling for ‘support yellow businesses’ rallies throughout the territory on 1 – 2 May. No further details on these rallies were available at the time of compiling this report.

                                                                                                

GEOPOLITICS AND LOCAL IMPLICATIONS

On Wednesday (28 April), Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) passed a law giving the immigration department the ability to prevent individuals from entering or leaving the territory without any other legal oversight or right of appeal. The new bill brings control over Hong Kong’s border into line with that in China and applies to all residents and visitors. The local government said the bill is required to control access from illegal migrants and asylum seekers, while Hong Kong’s security bureau said the law would only apply to flights into the territory and include the ability to bar airlines from carrying named individuals. Nevertheless, the wording of the bill means that it could also be applied to anyone seeking to leave the territory. The new regulations are due to be enforced from 1 August 2021.

The new legislation has greatly increased concerns that, as in China, anyone who is deemed to have transgressed established or future laws or otherwise offended the authorities can be prevented from leaving the territory regardless of their nationality or status. The timing of the bill coincides with offers from the UK, US, Canada, Australia and the EU that enhance or accelerate the ability for local Hong Kong residents to settle in their countries.

There are widespread fears among those seeking to leave the territory that they may now be prevented from doing so after the 1 August deadline. Foreign companies should also be aware that many of their key and skilled local personnel who had planned to leave Hong Kong may now try and bring their departure dates forward in the next three months, often without any formal notification. Companies may also carry out risk assessments to ascertain whether the past actions of any expatriate staff could compromise their ability to freely leave Hong Kong. 


Immigration Tower, Wan Chai district, Hong Kong Island, 29 April 2021 / HKFP          


PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY: COVID-19

Secretary for Civil Services Patrick Nip on Monday (26 April) announced the expansion of the ‘Return2HK’ programme to encompass all areas in mainland China and Macau. Those with documented travel history there are exempt from 14-day quarantine rules in Hong Kong as of Thursday (29 April), provided they have proof of a negative COVID-19 test result. Rules at this juncture will not be reciprocal, though, as mainland authorities continue to deem Hong Kong as high-risk for COVID-19. Travel to Hong Kong as part of the programme remains subject to quotas ranging from 1,000-3,000 daily arrivals, depending on point of entry. The development will ease staff mobility across the Greater China area.

Also on 26 April, the Singapore and Hong Kong authorities announced they had agreed to resume quarantine-free air travel between two of Asia’s key commercial centres from 26 May. The so-called Air Travel Bubble (ATB) was originally set to open in November 2020 but was suspended abruptly due to a surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in both Singapore and Hong Kong. Under the terms of the agreement individuals who have remained in either location for 14 days prior to their flight and irrespective of nationality are eligible to use the ATB. However, travellers departing Hong Kong will have to demonstrate they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, a requirement that does not apply for passengers embarking in Singapore. Travellers will also be required to undergo testing within three days of arrival at their respective destination. The ATB will initially comprise a single flight carrying up to 200 passengers in either direction a day, increasing to two flights per day from 10 June.

The resumption of air services is a key component in the economic recovery phase of the pandemic and the Singapore-Hong Kong ATB will be closely monitored by the commercial aviation industry and many governments. However, the limited number of available seats and the high level of demand means companies will find it difficult to use the ATB to routinely deploy staff between Singapore and Hong Kong until capacity on the route greatly increases. Further, the criteria triggering a suspension of the ATB is based on a relatively small number of new infections detected in either location, increasing the potential risk for the sudden suspension of the service. Foreign companies seeking to use the ATB should ensure they have robust plans in place to meet this contingency.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Sophia Chan on Tuesday (27 April) announced the launch of a vaccine bubble for dining and entertainment businesses, which were allowed to reopen on 29 April. Local COVID-19 cases have remained low in the past two weeks but the government remains vigilant against community transmission of concerning variants, according to Chan. As of 26 April, 241 cases of the N501Y variant have been recorded in Hong Kong, three of which were detected in the community. The first stage of the vaccine bubble will be launched from 29 April until 12 May, with businesses allowed to opt for one of four operation models. Easing of restrictions through vaccination is likely designed to incentivise higher take-up of vaccines and accelerate Hong Kong’s immunisation programme. However, lifting of restrictions remains contingent on effective containment of local outbreaks and the extent to which variants proliferate. Businesses should monitor the easing of restrictions and its impact on infection and vaccination rates, as such factors will determine staff mobility.

On 28 April, Hong Kong officials indefinitely suspended applications for activities related to the annual 4 June Victoria Park vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident, ostensibly over COVID-19 public health concerns.

The suspension of applications has raised the likelihood that the vigil will be banned for a second year in a row, officially in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, smaller-scale gathering and flash mob-style activities are likely to take place in spite of a ban and in defiance of possible violations of the national security law (NSL). Such activities would most likely take place in the vicinity of the Central Government Complex in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, among other potential flashpoints. Businesses should monitor announcements on the vigil by the government and organisers and anticipate probable disruption to local area businesses and travel.

On 29 April, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) announced that it was investigating 15 newly confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, including 13 imported from Nepal, one from India and one from Indonesia. CHP also said that there have been no local cases with unknown sources recorded over the past six days.


Despite a ban in 2020, thousands of Hong Kongers gather at Victoria Park to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, 4 June 2020 / HKFP

 

LOCAL POLITICAL AND SECURITY DEVELOPMENTS

On 27 April, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned that the territory’s government could take unspecified action against the local legal profession if it was deemed to transgress the law. Lam’s warning follows condemnation of the Hong Kong Bar Association, the professional group representing the interests of local barristers, by Beijing’s most senior official in the territory, who claimed its chairman Paul Harris was an ‘anti-China politician.’ Harris had earlier criticised recent prison sentences given to local pro-democracy activists.

Lam also raised doubts that the annual vigil to mark the anniversary of the quelling of pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989 would be permitted this year, linking it with celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on 1 July. Lam’s and Beijing’s warnings to the Bar Association are widely viewed as attempts to intimidate the local legal profession, many of whose members have sought to defend the territory’s Common Law system against legislation imposed by China.

 

THE WEEK AHEAD

More blowback from activist groups, the legal profession and the international community against the new immigration bill is likely in the coming week, with foreign governments already encouraging the exodus of Hong Kongers likely to accelerate their efforts. As the legal profession in Hong Kong has been targeted for criticism by the Lam administration, international law firms will become increasingly concerned over their future operations, investments and staff wellbeing.

Beijing is highly unlikely to relent in its efforts to maintain effective control over all aspects of Hong Kong’s governance. Further action against the legal profession, and therefore the existing rule of law, can be expected. Many foreign companies will be deeply concerned over any measures that erode established legal procedures that have enabled them to trade and conduct business in Hong Kong and the region, and are likely to base future plans on their ability to continue operating within the present status quo.

Further relaxations of COVID-19 containment measures are likely as caseloads remain in relatively low digits and there is no further spread from domestic sources. Any imposition of tighter restrictions are likely to be in response to the penetration and spread of foreign variants, namely from South Africa and India, and be targeted to a company or an area. Hong Kong is keen to restore business confidence and scale up economic activity as soon as possible, and as such continues navigating through this complex public health situation with precision actions.  


UPCOMING PROTESTS  30 April – 6 May

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:

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

1 – 2 May: Pro-democracy activists calling on supporters to hold ‘Support Yellow Shop’ rallies throughout the territory. No further information at this time.

8 May: Memorial for Tsz-lok Chow

15 May: Memorial for Marco Ling-kit Leung

21 May: Memorial for the 21 July 2019 Yuen Long attack

22 May: Memorial for Yin-lam Chan

Announcements of more precise details regarding these events will probably be made shortly in advance of the gatherings.

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 23 – 29 April

Wednesday 28 April

1200: Pro-democracy activists held a small gathering and press conference outside the Legislative Council, Tamar, Central district, Hong Kong Island, to voice their objections to the passage of an immigration law. The event was conducted peacefully and without any significant disruption to local travel.