HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 16 October 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
Another subdued week of street-level demonstrations over the reporting period (9-15 October), with one significant incident registered on Thursday (15 October). A confluence of factors including the national security law (NSL) and coronavirus (COVID-19) related restrictions continue to act as restrainers for protest activities. Over the monitoring cycle, however, inclement weather conditions from Tropical Storm Nangka, which has brought heavy rainfall and strong winds, has likely played a large part in dampening the intent of activists to mobilise.
On 15 October, a small number of activists gathered outside Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. They gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the 15 June 2019 death of Marco Leung Ling-kit. He was a 35-year-old pro-democracy activist who fell from a height at Pacific Place after hanging a banner denouncing the extradition law. Thursday’s gathering lasted just over an hour, with activists laying flowers around a makeshift ‘shrine’ and journalists covering the event. A small contingent of police were present, but there was no strong interdiction operation to disperse the gathering. No violence or arrests were reported.
Activists laying flowers outside Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, 15 October 2020
There were no further significant pro-democracy rallies or gatherings during this cycle. See details below.
Geopolitics and the local implications
Pro-democracy activists over the weekend (10-11 October) again encouraged the signing of a petition asking the German government to consider imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over the implementation of the NSL and alleged suppression of government critics, journalists, human rights activists, and religious minorities. The petition notes that approximately 700 German businesses and 4,000 German citizens in Hong Kong are at risk of prosecution under the law if they have openly supported the territory’s pro-democracy movement or criticised the Chinese Communist Party. If the petition reaches 50,000 signatures, the German government is required to respond to it. The petition has a 20 October deadline. It had more than 41,000 signatures (as of Monday, 12 October).
Should the petition reach 50,000 signatures before the deadline and the German government responds to it by imposing sanctions, it would heighten the risk of retaliations which would impact operations in Hong Kong, particularly against German businesses. Retaliations include boycotts of German firms’ goods and services, demonstrations by pro-Beijing groups, targeting of personalities of interest, increased cyber-attacks, and delayed cross-border trade, among other hostile actions.
The US government submitted a report to the country’s legislature on 12 October detailing what action it would take following Beijing’s unilateral imposition of China’s NSL on Hong Kong in late June. Under the terms of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act (HKAA) passed by the US Congress in mid-July, the US State Department is due to identify individuals and financial institutions deemed to have facilitated the imposition of the NSL. Washington and many Western nations consider the NSL to breach the terms of the Basic Law that has underpinned Hong Kong’s legal system and political arrangement since the UK returned the territory to China in 1997.
The foreign entities at greatest risk from any US sanctions are financial institutions engaged in ‘significant transactions’ with any officials assessed as complicit in the introduction of the NSL. This will include almost all major overseas banks; under the terms of the HKAA they will have 12 months in which to end all business ties with the named individuals found to be complicit. As these are known to include many of the territory’s most senior politicians and administrative officials, as well as local business leaders, the impact on the status of the foreign institutions could be severely compromised if, as is probable, Beijing retaliates by curtailing their operations throughout China and Hong Kong. This, in turn, would undermine wider business confidence among foreign and local business interests over Hong Kong’s role as a financial centre and facilitator for trade with China, one of the territory’s primary functions. Foreign non-financial companies should also assess how such an outcome may affect their operations in Hong Kong and China in the immediate outlook and beyond.
The US government on 12 October blocked Hong Kong residents from accessing at least two US federal government websites – those of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Census Bureau – that supply economic data. The blocking of US government websites in the territory brings information access closer in line with that of users in mainland China, Russia, and Ukraine. The US Census Bureau did not confirm or deny that Washington had blocked access to its website. However, it said that it ‘continually reviews cyber threat reporting and adjusts accordingly as circumstances evolve.’ The statement suggests that the websites were blocked over cyber security concerns. The measure also underscores concerns over information security by foreign entities in the territory since the imposition of the NSL.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday (14 October) defended the 12 Hong Kongers detained in mainland China, saying that they had ‘committed no crime’ and that ‘America stands with them.’ Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday (13 October) accused Beijing of ‘coercive diplomacy’ and condemned China over its treatment of Hong Kong and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Comments by PM Trudeau and Secretary of State Pompeo add further animosity to worsening diplomatic relations with Hong Kong and China. Such comments add uncertainty and stress on the foreign business community, which is concerned about retaliation from the Chinese and Hong Kong governments and from proxy groups. Retaliations may include boycotts of goods and services, demonstrations by pro-Beijing groups (especially around diplomatic missions), targeting of persons of interest, increased cyber-attacks, and delayed cross-border trade, among other hostile actions. However, with the US elections approaching, Beijing is very likely putting any strong punitive measures on pause until after the results.
On the same day, the US State Department issued a sanctions warning against international financial institutions doing business with 10 named individuals in Hong Kong, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam. These individuals allegedly facilitated the imposition of the NSL, which has empowered the government to further suppress Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
The US State Department’s warning is another escalation in worsening relations between China/Hong Kong and the US. This latest warning did not add any new individuals to the list, nor did it identify any specific financial institutions at risk. It did, however, reveal that those organisations would be publicly named within 60 days.
Also on 14 October, Hong Kong authorities on Wednesday issued arrest warrants for pro-democracy activist Brian Leung, who fled to the United States, and Fan Chun-man. The warrants come after the two failed to appear at a court summons over charges of participation in demonstrations on 1 July 2019 when protesters broke into the territory’s Legislative Council. The arrest warrants for Brian Leung and Fan Chun-man signal authorities’ continued pursuit of legal action against pro-democracy demonstrators. Such measures are likely to further intimidate protesters and curb street-level protest activity in the short-to-medium term.
On 15 October, Hong Kong police officers raided the private office of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy activist and owner of Next Digital media company. A senior spokesman for Next Digital tweeted that the police took an unspecified number of documents. It is understood that Lai had not been arrested. Lai is an iconic figure in the pro-democracy movement, and this raid is meant to serve as a warning to journalists, including freelancers, and media organisations of the potential to come under close government scrutiny and exposure to similar actions by the police.
The Hong Kong administration on Thursday (16 October) accused the United States government of ‘blatant interference’ in the territory’s internal affairs after the US State Department on Wednesday presented a report to the US Congress again naming individuals deemed complicit in supporting China’s increasingly intrusive actions in Hong Kong. The report also warned that financial institutions conducting significant transactions with the named individuals, including Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, will be identified and face enhanced sanctions within 60 days unless they ended their commercial ties with them. The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, signed into law in mid-July after China unilaterally imposed its national security law on the territory following months of pro-democracy protests, could result in non-compliant companies facing restrictions on US loans, foreign exchange, property transactions, exports and transfers as well as unspecified measures against individual executives.
The language employed in Hong Kong’s response indicates that it was dictated by Beijing, but makes no mention of counter-sanctions on US commercial interests in the territory. However, some form of action against US companies or their executives, and more broadly US nationals, cannot be discounted in the three-month outlook. The Chinese government, however, is unlikely to announce any action relating to US interests in Hong Kong or the mainland until after the results from the 3 November US elections are clear. Nevertheless, US nationals should be aware they may be at some risk from personal abuse or other actions by pro-China individuals and groups in Hong Kong and the mainland in response to the report, and they should consider adopting measures to mitigate the threat.
Operational implications from COVID-19
On Sunday (11 October), Hong Kong recorded seven new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, below the number reported in recent days. Four patients were linked to previous cases and two were from a care home that has reported 15 infections to date. The authorities, however, are increasingly concerned by the growing number of untraceable infections recorded in the past week. A leading microbiologist who advises the government on its COVID-19 strategy on Sunday warned that more than 10,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths were possible unless social distancing measures at high-risk venues are maintained and monitored during the winter months. Professor Yuen Kwok-yung warned that bars, restaurants, fresh produce markets and care homes are at specific risk. The government has yet to indicate whether it intends to implement further restrictions on such venues, but any further measures can be expected to impact efforts to reopen travel links.
On 13 October, Hong Kong recorded nine cases, below the 11 reported the previous day, including at least two locally transmitted infections linked to a hotel in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui entertainment district. The new cases have added to the authorities concerns over the growing number of untraceable infections recorded in the past week.
On 15 October, Hong Kong recorded 12 cases, an increase over recent days reflecting the closure of testing centres on Wednesday due to a typhoon alert. On Thursday the government announced an agreement had been reached in principle with Singapore to establish a so-called ‘travel bubble’ or ‘air corridor’ permitting conditional mutual non-quarantined entry to residents. Under the proposals no restrictions on the purpose of travel will be set, but all passengers will have to take a COVID-19 test recognised in Hong Kong and Singapore, with details regarding proximity of the test to flight departure and which airlines are permitted to operate yet to be established.
Assuming there are no further increases in the rate of infection in either Hong Kong or Singapore the programme could be initiated within the next few weeks. It is unclear whether the Hong Kong authorities will announce an easing of travel restrictions with mainland China and Macau to coincide with the proposed resumption of quarantine-free travel with Singapore, although it will be surprising if such arrangements are not announced in the coming days.
THE WEEK AHEAD
There are no scheduled demonstrations over the weekend and next week; however, another significant date is approaching that commemorates the ‘721 Yuen Long Attacks’ of 2019.
On the 21st day of every calendar month, there are calls for mobilisations and rallies to commemorate the incident In July 2019, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activist-led protests continued on an upward trend of intensification and spread throughout that month. From 1 to 19 July, demonstrations occurred in several areas of the territory where there were at times pitched battles between protesters and police. Then on 20-21 July, the situation took on a particularly savage tone, when alleged triad members clad in white attacked protesters and non-participant commuters at Yuen Long MTR station.
This was a pivotal moment for the activist movement as it alleges that the Hong Kong Police and the government of Chief Executive Lam tacitly sanctioned the attacks. Since then, the date has been commemorated and serves as a powerful symbol for the activists, underscoring the extent of violence the Hong Kong authorities will sanction to suppress pro-democracy efforts. Typically, there are calls for rallies at Yuen Long station, specifically at ‘Exit B’, and other popular venues in the district such as Yoho Mall.
In keeping with overall trends and intent, pro-democracy activists still advertise calls to action every Saturday at territory-wide shopping centres. While they continue to list potential venues, these gatherings usually take place at one or two locations. They do attract a significant police presence, but most of these events have been usually short-lived and of minimal impact to local area businesses.
Recent geopolitical developments should be closely monitored from a broader operational perspective for foreign businesses in Hong Kong. In the US context, as the presidential election approaches, threats, warnings and highly-inciteful rhetoric from the administration of US President Donald Trump are likely to raise anxiety levels among the American and foreign business communities in Hong Kong. While the optics of this will be bad, it is unlikely that Beijing will take any punitive measures until after the election.
Worsening relations with Hong Kong and Beijing have caused foreign business sentiment to inch deeper into the negative, with more firms considering viable options outside the territory. Market exit can be complicated due to the potential political connectiveness of vendors, regulatory and tax liabilities, and likely increase of labour force frictions, among several other considerations. These are longer-term activities that will be influenced by a series of escalatory push-pull factors such as targeted protests, boycotts and the threat of being targeted by malicious cyber-operatives.
See details of upcoming protests below.
Saturday 17 October
1830-1930: Activists are planning to hold 20 ‘Sing with You’ rallies at the following locations:
APM, Kwun Tong district (Hong Kong Island)
Times Square, Causeway Bay (Hong Kong Island)
Maritime Square, Tsing Yi (Hong Kong Island)
City Plaza, Tai Koo Shing (Hong Kong Island)
International Finance Center (IFC) Central district (Hong Kong Island)
New Town Plaza, Sha Tin district (Kowloon)
Tai Po district (Kowloon)
TMT Plaza, Tuen Mun district (Kowloon)
Yoho Mall, Yuen Long district (Kowloon)
Telford Plaza, Kowloon Bay (Kowloon)
Langham Place, Mong Kok (Kowloon)
Hollywood Plaza, Diamond Hill (Kowloon)
Domain Mall, Yau Tong (Kowloon)
Treasure World of The Whampoa (Kowloon)
Temple Mall, Wong Tai Shan (Kowloon)
Tsuen Wan Plaza, Tsuen Wan (New Territories)
PopCorn Mall, Tseung Kwan O (New Territories)
MosTown, Ma On Shan (New Territories)
+WOO, Tin Shui Wai (New Territories)
Tai Po Mega Mall Zone C, Tai Po district (New Territories)
Note: alternative start times/cancellations are possible, and venue locations are subject to change at short notice. This event is intended to recur every Saturday.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 9 – 15 October
Wednesday 14 October
1315: Activists planned to gather for a ‘Lunch with You’ rally at the Lennon Wall, Central District, Hong Kong Island.
Thursday 15 October
1830-1930: A small group of activists gathered for a memorial service titled, “Remembering Marco Leung Kit Sing with You’ at Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island.