HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 18 September 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
The monitoring cycle (11-17 September) was relatively subdued in terms of frequency and scale of street-level protests compared to the previous reporting period.
It began with a solo protest by a locally well-known activist named ‘David’, who has appeared at various venues throughout the territory. On Monday (14 September), he appeared at the APM shopping centre, Kwun Tong district, Kowloon, for a ‘Lunch with You’ protest. Police were present, but did not interfere, and David left his rally peacefully after about an hour. Then on Tuesday (15 September), there was a gathering and march from the Infinitus Plaza Shopping Arcade in Sheung Wan, to the International Finance Centre (IFC) shopping centre in Central district, Hong Kong Island, where activists held a procession for Marco Leung Ling-kit, who fell from Pacific Place during a demonstration on 15 June 2019. No arrests were made and no violence occurred during the procession.
On the same day, the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court in Sham Shui Po district, Kowloon, was a focal point for pro-democracy activists protesting the trial of 26 fellow activists. They displayed banners and shouted anti-government slogans in the vicinity of the court, in which 26 prominent pro-democracy activists appeared over a banned vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Incident. The vigil was held on 4 June to commemorate the anniversary despite a ban on the gathering, ostensibly to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Defendants include well-known activist Joshua Wong and media tycoon Jimmy Lai. The accused are charged with either taking part in or inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly. The incitement charge can result in up to five years’ imprisonment. Court proceedings relating to the prominent pro-democracy activists are likely to inspire further street-level protest activity, particularly in the vicinity of the court.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said that the 12 Hong Kongers being detained in mainland China were not ‘democratic activists being oppressed.’ Hong Kong’s Security Bureau on Monday (14 September) said that all 12 were suspected of committing crimes in Hong Kong. Ten of them, who had been on bail and barred from exiting Hong Kong, had been charged with offences including assaulting police, possession of offensive weapons, rioting, making or possessing explosives, or arson, according to the bureau. One was suspected of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law.
A production worker from Hong Kong’s broadcaster TVB on 15 September was arrested on suspicion of posting messages on the internet inciting others to harass the station’s staff, disrupts its shows, and burn its equipment, as well as damage public transport facilities. In 2019, demonstrators allegedly targeted TVB’s reporters for what they deemed to be the station’s pro-government coverage. If the allegations relating to the TVB production worker are true, then the arrest of the worker underscores the heightened risk of detention and arrest for staff members accused of publicly espousing pro-democracy views or promoting associated anti-government activities.
The rest of the period saw no significant street-level demonstrations, but instead geopolitical developments garnered the most attention during the reporting cycle.
Geopolitics and the local implications
Taiwan has since August been holding five Hong Kongers who had escaped the territory by boat and were taken in by Taiwan’s coast guard in the South China Sea, according to media reports on 13-14 September. Chinese state-run news outlet Global Times on Monday (14 September) said that the island’s detention of the five Hong Kongers indicated that Taiwan’s promises to aid Hong Kongers were not genuine. The detention coincides with accusations that the Hong Kong government is denying assistance to 12 Hong Kongers that had attempted to flee the territory for Taiwan and were detained by authorities on the mainland. Beijing on Sunday (13 September) said the escapees were separatists, following a news conference in Hong Kong on Saturday (12 September) in which families of those detained by mainland authorities called for their return. The detainees on the mainland reportedly include pro-democracy activists, while details relating to the detainees in Taiwan are unclear.
One prominent pro-democracy activist named Sunny Cheung said that he escaped Hong Kong in August over security concerns. Cheung in a post on social media said he noticed ‘a pattern of hostage diplomacy’ as US-China relations were fraying. Cheung wrote the post after he failed to show up in court on Tuesday. Sunny Cheung’s escape from Hong Kong highlights pro-democracy activists’ concerns for their safety under current conditions in the territory, which may deter activists from engaging in larger scale street-level protest activity.
Overall, the developments portend to increasing desperation by pro-democracy activists, particularly those that are at heightened risk of being targeted under the national security law, as well as a potential loss of momentum in significant street-level demonstrations. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday (11 September) said that the US is deeply concerned about the 12 detainees being held in mainland China, prompting Chinese officials to accuse the US of interfering in China’s domestic affairs. Pompeo’s comments will probably trigger likely Beijing/Hong Kong government-sponsored demonstrations in Hong Kong. This form of retaliation from pro-Beijing activists may also target US organisations in the immediate to near term.
The US on 14 September issued new guidance advising citizens to ‘reconsider travel’ to Hong Kong, an escalation from earlier guidance in June that advised citizens to ‘exercise increased caution.’ The new guidance warned that US nationals that have openly criticised the People’s Republic of China were at heightened risk of detention and other measures under the national security law. The State Department also repeated its cautioning that Beijing was allegedly conducting a propaganda campaign to ‘falsely’ accuse US citizens of ‘fomenting unrest in Hong Kong.’ Hong Kong at the moment has barred entry for non-residents arriving by air from anywhere except for mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan. Although the increased severity of the US’ travel advice regarding Hong Kong has little bearing in practical terms, it underscores the heightened risk of detention, harassment, and visa issues for foreign expatriates.
The European Union (EU) also weighed in Beijing’s influence on Hong Kong on the same day. During trade negotiations President Xi Jinping, the EU condemned the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in Hong Kong, including its handling of journalists. Chinese state news agency Xinhua said that Xi rejected any country’s meddling in China’s domestic affairs. The EU’s comments regarding Hong Kong will probably trigger Beijing/Hong Kong government-sponsored demonstrations in Hong Kong. This form of retaliation from pro-Beijing activists may also target organisations from EU member states in the immediate to near term. Boycotts of products from EU member states also cannot be ruled out.
On Wednesday (16 September), Hong Kong Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said that his government filed a formal objection with the US government over the latter’s request to have export goods produced in the territory with “Made in China” labels. The letter of objection requests that Washington DC withdraw its label-changing request as it violates WTO regulations.
Yau’s comments and the Hong Kong government’s formal objection mark another escalatory step in the ongoing diplomatic and trade disputes with the US administration of President Donald Trump. As Hong Kong’s economy is dominated by its large services sector, the practical impact of the measure has been relatively minimal. The move, however, has important symbolism, marking a further erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy from China and reflecting the unravelling of the territory’s US trade privileges, in light of new national security legislation.
More broadly, the development highlights the worsening of bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing, marred by disputes over the COVID-19 pandemic, Huawei, alleged human rights abuses against China’s Uyghur population, Chinese trade practices, as well as disagreements over Hong Kong’s political status.
The labelling issue also plays into the agenda of pro-democracy activists, who have called for international boycotts and sanctions against Hong Kong businesses deemed supportive of the Beijing government.
Walt Disney’s Mulan opened on 17 September with cinemas receiving low customer turnout. Pro-democracy activists have been calling for a boycott of the film because it was partially made in the Xinjiang region, an area where the Chinese government has been accused of committing human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims, and because the movie’s star, Liu Yifei, showed support for the Hong Kong police in a social media post in 2019. By comparison, the film sold approximately 20-33 per cent fewer tickets than locally-produced “im livin it” and Hollywood action film Tenet during the same morning showing at Mong Kong Broadway Theatre, Mong Kong district, Kowloon, and Festival Grand Cinema, Parc Oasis, Kowloon, respectively.
Relatedly, the low turnout on the day of the Mulan opening could very well be attributable to boycott calls circulating on social media under the banners #BoycottMulan and #BanMulan. Flash-mob protests are possible at cinemas showing the film and stores selling Mulan merchandise.
Hong Kong’s official government gazette on Friday (18 September) reported that an Australian national who had served as a senior judge on the territory’s Court of Final Appeal had his appointment revoked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam with effect from 2 September. James Spigelman had served on the court since April 2013, and a government spokesperson said that Lam had ’revoked his appointment in accordance with the relevant legislation.’
According to the Hong Kong administration and local media Spigelman had resigned his post, without explanation, two years before his contract was due to expire. However, there is widespread speculation in the territory and in Australia that Spigelman’s departure was either the result of pressure from the Beijing government or due to his opposition to a new security law imposed by China in June.
The impact of his departure has been to again raise concern over the status of Hong Kong’s Common Law-based legal system, which emphasises an independent judiciary, and the growing influence of China’s justice system that is subservient to the priorities of the country’s ruling communist party. A number of judges from Britain and Canada remain in the territory’s court system, but their presence has raised questions over whether they should support what appears to be evolving into a hybrid legal system incorporating elements of Common Law and China’s administrative law. Foreign companies are increasingly concerned over how their commercial operations, staff and assets may be affected by any changes to Hong Kong’s laws, with further developments likely in the three-month outlook.
Operational implications from COVID-19
Hong Kong’s health authorities on Thursday (17 September) reported that nine cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) had been detected, including a number of locally transmitted cases from an unknown source.
Overall, the declining trend in new cases has been maintained with an average of 20 confirmed cases a day so far in September against more than 50 per day during August. As of Tuesday (15 September), 1.78 million of the territory’s estimated 7.5 million resident population have taken part in a voluntary COVID-19 testing programme, which detected 32 previously unknown cases. The programme is seen as key to further relaxing restrictions, and on Tuesday the government announced relaxed rules on social gatherings.
According to one senior medical specialist it could take up to six weeks before no new daily cases are recorded, an important metric in reopening the territory’s borders. The local administration is in contact with 11 countries regarding the possible opening of so-called ‘travel bubbles,’ although no timetable has been given. Talks have begun with Japan and Thailand, and discussions are pending with Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Geopolitical developments are likely to continue to dominate the incident reporting for the upcoming week, particularly as the US election race ramps up and the administration of President Donald Trump focusses on directing attention away from domestic issues towards China. Bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing are deviating downwards with Hong Kong serving as a proxy battle ground. The EU’s increasingly stronger stance against China broadens the potential for state-sponsored retaliation against European governments and private companies operating within the territory. How this form of retaliation manifests will vary, though cyberattacks cannot be ruled out.
There are two planned demonstrations for the upcoming week, which is in keeping with the general threshold for street-level demonstrations. Coronavirus-related restrictions and the national security law are still significant deterrents for protesters, but the fact that they are continuing on a weekly basis underscores the fact that pro-democracy activists are keen to maintain the momentum, propagandise to an international audience and seek to undermine the authority of the Lam government. While most demonstrations over recent monitoring cycles have largely been peaceful, they do cause very localised disruption to businesses and travel in the near vicinity, particularly larger events. These threats are likely to continue during this monitoring period.
Should the Hong Kong government decide to continue relaxing COVID-19-related restrictions, then this is likely to increase the likelihood of more public rallies by activists at local area shopping centres and other public venues.
There are some significant dates coming up in the pro-democracy calendar, such as the 721 attacks (21 July 2019) and the beginning of the 2014 umbrella movement (26 September 2014).
See details of upcoming protests below.
Friday 18 September
1300: Activists are planning a ‘Lunch with You’ protest at Landmark, Statue Square and IFC Podium, Central district, Hong Kong Island. Activists intend to read copies of the Apple Daily newspaper in silence as a symbolic gesture to protest the government’s suppression of speech.
Saturday 19 September
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 11 – 17 September
Sunday 13 September
1430-1800: Pro-democracy activists held a ‘silent parade’ from the Jordan MTR Station to Argyle Street (via Nathan Road) in Yau Ma Tei district, Kowloon.
Monday 14 September
1300: The lone pro-democracy activist known locally as ‘Dave’ appeared a ‘Lunch with You’ protest at the APM shopping centre, Kwun Tong district, Hong Kong Island. Police were present but did not interfere. Dave dispersed peacefully about an hour later.
Tuesday 15 September
1200: Pro-democracy activists appeared outside the West Kowloon Magistrate’s Court, Sham Shui Po district, Kowloon, to protest the trial of 26 prominent activists. The activists appeared before the court to defend themselves against charges of public incitement and illegal gathering during a 4 June vigil that commemorated the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident in Beijing.
1730-1830: Pro-democracy activists gathered for a mourning rally and march that started at Infinitus Plaza in Sheung Wan and ended at the International Finance Center shopping centre in Central district, Hong Kong Island. The protesters marched along the footbridge connecting Sheung Wan, Hong Kong MTR Station and Central.