HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 20 November 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
Over the reporting period (13-19 November), street-level protest activities were relatively subdued with incident numbers slightly lower from the previous cycle. The lone activist known as ‘David’ held two protests on Wednesday (18 November), including one at the Hung Hom MTR station footbridge, Yau Tsim Mong, Kowloon and the other out the Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island.
David was the sole participant in a protest dubbed, ‘Reading Apple Daily with You at Poly University’ at Hung Hom MTR station footbridge. He held the silent protest to commemorate clashes between protesters and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University as part of the Hong Kong police’s siege of the university campus on 17-29 November 2019. Pro-democracy activists had barricaded themselves into the university as part of anti-extradition bill protests.
Pro-democracy activists have in previous associated rallies used the Apple Daily newspaper to suggest pro-democracy messages without violating the national security law. Support for David in the pro-democracy movement has recently been strained by perceived improper behaviour by David, including a rally reading Apple Daily on 16 November near the scene of a major fire in Yau Ma Tei on 15 November 2020 that critics said did not respect the seven deceased in the fire. Criticism is likely to be compounded by more behaviour deemed inappropriate or disrespectful towards elders in a verbal altercation during the protest at Hung Hom footbridge.
David at the Hung Hom MTR station footbridge/18 November 2020
David then gathered outside of the Hong Kong Police Headquarters to submit a petition letter to Chris Tang (Commissioner of Police) regarding the ‘2019 Hong Kong Polytechnic University incident’. For this particular event, there were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to area travel.
While these were significant protests during the monitoring cycle, there were some important development issues that drive activist intentions and mobilisations.
On Monday (16 November), the coroner’s inquest into the death of Chow Tsz-lok began, and will continue for 25 days. Chow Tsz-lok, who died on 8 November 2019 in Tseung Kwan O, is believed to be the first casualty linked to pro-democracy demonstrations. His death is a significant date in the pro-democracy calendar that routinely generates mobilisations.
Though a police investigation concluded that the police could not have pushed Chow off the Sheung Tak car park in Tseung Kwan O from which he fell to his death, the claim alleging police involvement gained significant traction among activists. The outcome of the inquest into the cause of Chow’s death is likely to be closely followed by activists, who may protest if results are deemed inaccurate or biased in favour of the police. Likely flashpoints for demonstrations include the West Kowloon Law Courts Building in Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, where the inquest is taking place, as well as Tseung Kwan O.
Then on Tuesday (17 November) a senior Chinese government official said Beijing intended to implement fundamental changes to Hong Kong’s legal system. Zhang Xiaoming, a deputy director at the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) which is responsible to Beijing for overseeing the territory’s governance and security, claimed while any ‘reforms’ would not affect judicial independence he noted concerns that the local court system continued to reflect foreign values at the expense of Beijing’s trust. Zhang offered no details on how such changes will be implemented and what they entail.
Zhang’s remarks should be viewed as representing Beijing’s intentions to alter the relationship between Hong Kong’s judicial system and the wider public and commercial communities. Pro-Beijing groups in Hong Kong have long contested the ‘foreign’ composition of the local judiciary, reflecting the territory’s reliance on English Common Law and the continuing role of overseas judges within the court system. Since the imposition of China’s national security law in June 2020 there has been a growing emphasis on the requirement that public officials, including the judiciary, should be ‘patriots’ and that the concept of the ‘separation of powers’ intended to protect the courts from political influence challenged the dominance of the ruling Communist Party of China and was de facto seditious. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the reluctance of foreign companies to reveal their concerns has resulted in a muted corporate response to China’s moves. However, many businesses will be assessing how to mediate the risk any changes to the local legal system may have on their operations, assets and staff. These are likely to become evident in the three-month outlook, and can be expected to result in a response from Beijing that increases concerns over the territory’s viability and role as a regional operational base.
Also on 19 November, the High Court ruled that the government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam had failed in its provision of an independent reporting and monitoring mechanism to address public complaints about the police. Lam responded to the ruling by declaring that the current mechanism was sufficient.
The High Court ruling is particularly noteworthy as the establishment of a more effective reporting mechanism for police complaints has been one of the central planks of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The current mechanism has been frequently deemed inadequate and ineffective, particularly as the large volume of complaints about police brutality during the 2019 mass anti-extradition unrest and treatment of political oppositionists and grassroots activists, in general, have not resulted in any formal charges, trial or punitive measures. Within activist circles, the ruling bodes well for their cause. However, there is unlikely going to be any substantive structural reforms to address the issue, meaning that it will remain a lingering source of activist angst and cause to mobilise.
More broadly, however, the ruling can be interpreted as the judiciary taking a stronger stance on its independence, something that has come under serious threat from Beijing. It is another development that foreign organisations should monitor closely.
There were no other significant pro-democracy rallies or gatherings during this cycle. See details below.
Geopolitics and the local implications
Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, on Friday (13 November) condemned the UK’s criticism of the disqualification of four Hong Kong opposition lawmakers from the territory’s Legislative Council. Liu alleged that the UK’s criticism meddled in China’s affairs.
Liu’s condemnation of the UK’s criticism is another escalation that is straining UK-China relations, which raises the prospects that the UK will impose sanctions on China over alleged breaches of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Although individuals to be sanctioned have not been named, these could include Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Sanctions by the UK, in addition to existing US sanctions, would likely be mirrored by the European Union.
The incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden has a considerable amount of leverage over the Chinese government. During the current administration, President Donald Trump has issued a raft of executive orders against China and Hong Kong, including the most recent one banning US investment companies from funding firms with links to the Chinese military. While there is unlikely going to be a wholesale repeal of these executive orders by the Biden administration in the short-term, the administration is likely to be more selective and use them as bargaining chips in exchange for Beijing’s cooperation on a number of controversial issues. Potential areas of cooperation between Washington and Beijing are the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as both provide significant opportunities to each party.
Worsening geopolitical and economic tensions with China could increase pressure on foreign businesses operating in Hong Kong by their home governments and markets. UK Labour Party politicians have been particularly vocal about threatening South African Apartheid Era-like boycotts of UK-based banks in Hong Kong if they do not support democratic values, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been pressured to target HSBC and Standard Chartered over concerns stemming from the banks’ backing of the territory’s national security law.
On 16 November, the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticised Beijing’s move of disqualifying four Hong Kong pro-democracy politicians, and said that the Czech government is actively working with the European Union in deliberations on further measures to maintain Hong Kong’s freedoms. The Chinese embassy in the Czech Republic on 17 November responded by criticising the statement as alleged meddling in Hong Kong and China affairs.
The statement by the Czech Republic’s foreign ministry regarding the disqualification of the opposition legislators follows a trend of particularly vocal criticism of Beijing, as well as support for Taiwan, by elements of the Czech government. Such statements fuelling bilateral tensions could translate into increased hostility towards Czech commercial interests in mainland China, and, possibly to a lesser degree, Hong Kong.
On 18 November, activists organised a busking event in Tokyo’s Ginza district in solidarity with the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. This busking event demonstrates continued efforts by activists to pressure the Japanese government into exerting stronger diplomatic pressure on the Hong Kong and/or Beijing governments. Japan and Australia on 17 November reached a Reciprocal Access Agreement in principle that strengthens defence and security cooperation between the two countries. As part of the talks on the agreement they also stated they shared concerns about issues including the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong. Additionally, Tokyo on Wednesday 18 November said that it is closely following the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang region.
Such developments straining bilateral relations could incite more hostility towards Japanese commercial interests in mainland China and Hong Kong. The statements also illustrate Japan’s increasingly tough stance on Beijing, which may be bolstered through enhanced security cooperation with the US under a Biden administration. Targeted sanctions are an option and more threats to divest in the Hong Kong and greater China markets are also other courses of actions, particularly given the impact from the coronavirus pandemic on the regional supply chain. Other major urban centres in the Asia-Pacific region have also seen similar activities in solidarity with the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, including in Sydney, Australia and Taipei, Taiwan.
Operational implications from COVID-19
On Sunday (15 November), Hong Kong recorded 14 new coronavirus cases, nine imported and five local transmissions, including one that has yet to be traced, adding to public health specialists’ concerns that the pattern of infection closely resembles the start of the territory’s so-called ‘Covid third wave’ that resulted in the rapid spread of the disease.
In response, the authorities announced further distancing regulations, including plans to regulate the number of people allowed to participate in ‘staycations’, strengthening measures regarding anyone returning from overseas quarantined in hotels and from Monday (16 November) a resumption in limiting the number of people able to dine in restaurants or socialise in bars.
On Tuesday (17 November) Hong Kong recorded seven new coronavirus cases, four locally transmitted and three imported, including two aircrew. The health authorities are particularly concerned by the number of taxi driver testing positive for COVID-19 as it follows a trend identified earlier in the year that presaged a wave of infections. At least five taxi drivers have been recorded as becoming infected so far this month.
These new cases coincide with the announcements that Hong Kong and Singapore plan to resume limited quarantine-free air travel from 22 November based on a maximum of 200 passengers on a single flight from each locations a day. This tentative reopening of air services could be quickly halted if the number of cases in Hong Kong or Singapore increases markedly in the coming week or so.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Another significant date is fast approaching in the activist calendar, namely the ‘721 Yuen Long attacks’.
In the run up to the 21st day of the calendar month, there are calls for mobilisations and rallies to commemorate the ‘721 Yuen Long attacks’. 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 Carrie Lam tacitly sanctioned the attacks. Since then, the date has been commemorated and serves as a powerful symbol for the activists. Typically, there are calls for rallies at Yuen Long station, specifically at ‘Exit B’, and other popular venues. This upcoming Saturday (21 November), there have been calls for flash mob-style events and a protest run throughout the territory. Previously, there have been calls for rallies at Yuen Long station and Yoho Mall, Yuen Long district, New Territories, and these venues for Saturday’s events cannot be ruled out.
In the geopolitical sphere, the Lam administration’s recent disqualification of opposition lawmakers has garnered a growing coalition of condemnation from foreign governments, particularly in light of recent statements by the Czech foreign ministry. The Czech Republic joins Germany in leading the EU in adding more diplomatic pressure on a defiant Beijing and Hong Kong, raising the prospects of more punitive measures against the latter two, including targeted sanctions. While these are unlikely to manifest in the current monitoring cycle (20-26 November), foreign companies in China and Hong Kong should factor in such a scenario to assess potential impacts to operations, assets and personnel over the short term (1-3 months).
See details of upcoming protests below.
UPCOMING PROTESTS 20 – 26 November
Saturday 21 November
TBA: Activists are encouraging supporters to organise for flash mob protests to commemorate the ‘721 Yuen Long attacks’. Times and venues are likely to be announced at least an hour before they start.
TBA: Activists have called for supporters to mobilise for a commemoration run called ‘#39MUNRUNFOR721 and management run’. The event is aimed at memorialising the victims of the ‘721 Yuen Long attacks’. Time and venues are likely to be announced at least an hour before they start.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 13 – 19 November
Wednesday 18 November
1330: The pro-democracy activist known as ‘David’ was the sole participant in a protest dubbed, ‘Reading Apple Daily with You at Poly University’ at Hung Hom MTR station footbridge, Yau Tsim Mong, Kowloon. There were no reports of any arrests or localised travel disruption.
1530: Lone activists David gathered outside of the Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island, to submit a petition letter to Chris Tang (Commissioner of Police) regarding the ‘2019 Hong Kong Polytechnic University incident’. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to area travel.