HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 12 February 2021

12 February 2021

THE SITUATION NOW

This past reporting period (5-11 February) kept within previous thresholds’ protest-related incident volumes, with the local pro-democracy activist David holding several lone protests at popular shopping malls, judicial courts and police stations. More recently, David has announced through several social media platforms his intentions to appear at venues for protests, but has failed to appear. No reason is ever given as to his ‘no-shows’, but continual non-appearances will erode his impact, even as a symbol, in the pro-democracy movement. However, we do not anticipate David significantly slowing the pace of his protests in the foreseeable future.

On Monday (8 February),  David appeared at Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year Market in Victoria Park, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island, instead of appearing in several planned protests commemorating the 2019 death of a pro-democracy activist. Then on Tuesday (9 February), he appeared outside of the Court of Final Appeal, Central district, Hong Kong Island, to advocate for the release of jailed activist and Apple Daily newspaper-owner Jimmy Lai.

David did not appear at a further planned protest intended to advocate for the release of Jimmy Lai on 9 February. No reason was given for his ‘no-show’. The court denied bail for the media tycoon, who is awaiting trial for alleged violations of the national security law (NSL). The denial of bail demonstrates the overriding of Hong Kong’s Common Law-based legal system through the NSL. Presumption of bail for non-violent offences was a key feature of the Common Law system, though the ruling confirms that the NSL has removed this feature.

Lai is one of the most recognised members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, and the ruling will further raise concerns that the NSL supersedes aspects of Hong Kong’s legal system. The ruling is also likely to factor into foreign governments’ Hong Kong and China policy, particularly those in the so-called Anglosphere. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in December 2020 called on Hong Kong authorities to desist from targeting Lai and other pro-democracy activists after Lai was charged under the NSL. The ruling will almost certainly raise tensions with London and elevate the potential for a diplomatic response.

David appeared at three locations including the International Finance Centre (IFC) Atrium mall and Landmark mall in Central district, Hong Kong Island, for protests on Wednesday (10 February) and Thursday (11 February), respectively. He also held a protest outside the Tsing Yi Police Station, New Territories on 10 February. David’s protests did not cause any significant disruption to local area business and travel.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday announced that the territory’s government will ‘strictly enforce’ Beijing’s policy of non-recognition of dual nationality among ethnic Chinese residents born in Hong Kong or China. Lam said that the law was a ‘specific provision’ agreed ahead of China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997. Some Western consulates in the territory have recently reported that they had been denied access to dual nationals in what they viewed as a sudden change in government policy. Under the law all local passport holders are required to specify their nationality, if necessary, formally relinquishing their status as Chinese citizens and its attendant benefits and obligations. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese residents are known to have acquired a second nationality.


HSBC branch in Hong Kong, 12 February 2021/China News Services/Getty Images

Geopolitics and the local implications

An international coalition of legislators from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China sent a letter to HSBC Holdings Chairman Mark Tucker, criticising the bank and urging it to unfreeze the accounts of Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Ted Hui. A HSBC spokeswoman responded by saying that the bank was ‘unable to comment on individual cases’ but that the Hong Kong Police Force in December 2020 had publicly given reasons for its orders to banks to freeze accounts linked with Hui and his family. HSBC also said that it was obliged to comply with the legal orders by Hong Kong police to freeze the accounts of an individual being formally probed.

The alliance comprises legislators from Australia, Canada, Germany, France, UK, Switzerland and 10 other countries and the letter they sent to the HSBC chief is another escalatory step in this widening diplomatic dispute. The letter by the legislators underscores concerns by the international community over the alleged role of Hong Kong’s banks in the suppressing of pro-democracy activists. Pressure to impose boycotts or sanctions against the banks has been increasing, particularly in the United Kingdom.

UK-based HSBC’s abiding by the conditions of the NSL in the territory is clashing with growing concerns around human rights in China and Hong Kong, particularly as the UK is weighing whether to label China’s Uyghur policy as ‘genocide’. Such labelling is likely given that the UK will want to follow the US’ lead after Washington made a similar designation. London would also be able to tout its human rights credentials against the European Union’s perceived failings. EU MEPs recently condemned the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment agreed upon in principle between Brussels and China over potential damage to the EU’s human rights credentials and have urged targeted sanctions.

The letter also carries no legal weight and is unlikely to harm the company’s core operations, but it is a symbolic gesture likely aimed at tarnishing one of its core assets—its reputation. It adds pressure on HSBC, leading to reputational decline, and in the long-term can incur loss of market share.

On 9 February, a bipartisan group of senior US senators reintroduced a bill facilitating the obtaining of refugee status for Hong Kongers. The bill is designed for those fleeing the territory over fears of being targeted for participation in demonstrations, and is a response to China’s imposition of the NSL. The bill, dubbed the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, will not include a cap on refugees and waives provisions that make suspected intent to immigrate or a criminal record reasons for disqualification for non-immigrant visas. The bill also allows Hong Kongers who have had their residency withdrawn to apply for refugee status as victims of political persecution. The act was reintroduced due to the expiry of a prior version when a new senate was seated in January.

The development notably comes against the backdrop of vocal support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement by US President Joe Biden’s administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Given broad bipartisan support and a hardening stance among English-speaking countries vis-à-vis Hong Kong policy, the bill is likely to pass. Beijing will almost certainly accuse the bill of constituting a ploy by Washington to harbour criminals, given the provisions stipulated by the act. In a stark example of China’s confrontational ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’, Chinese ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu in October 2020 made a veiled threat to Hong Kong-based Canadians if Ottawa granted asylum to demonstrators fleeing the territory. Cong said that granting them asylum could threaten the ‘health and safety’ of Canadians in Hong Kong. Similar threats and potential retaliation targeting US interests in Hong Kong can be anticipated in the event that the bill passes.


Ambush lockdown in Sham Shui Po, 3 February 2021/Kenny Huang and Michael Ho/Studio Incendo

Operational implications from COVID-19

On 8 February, Hong Kong recorded at least 32 new coronavirus cases, 28 locally transmitted and four imported. Most of the local transmissions are linked previously known cases or clusters, although six have untraced sources of infection. Then on 11 February, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) registered 21 new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. There were four imported cases, including two form the Philippines, one from Albania and one from India. Meanwhile, the secretary of civil service, Patrick Nip, announced that the government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan will commence this month, but did not indicate any specific start dates. He did provide details on the categories of priority groups, which will include the elderly and staff in residential care homes, residents and employees at residential facilities for the disabled and the non-residential care home elderly.

Medical and support staff involved in anti-COVID efforts along with customs and border control staff are also among the priority groups. Nip also indicated that once the vaccination programme is launched, the government will reassess current control measures with the intention of introducing phased relaxation of them. No definitive timelines were announced.

The government is continuing its policy of staging so-called ‘ambush lockdowns’ without warning in locations where cases have been identified to contain new clusters of the virus. These costly and disruptive actions generally result in very few new infections being located, but are in line with the government’s declared policy seeking to achieve ‘zero COVID’ cases before permitting the full reopening of travel and commercial activity. Many public health and medical specialists warn that the total elimination of the virus, which is continually mutating, is technically almost impossible.


THE WEEK AHEAD

The Chinese Lunar New Year holiday will be from Friday (12 February) to Monday (15 February). There have been no demonstrations scheduled during this period, however, spontaneous flash-mob style protests cannot be ruled out. A resumption of planned demonstrations can also not be ruled out after this holiday period.

The Hong Kong government (as of Friday, 12 February), announced that dual-nationals will not be entitled to foreign consular assistance. The move will add to concerns among many local residents that further restrictions linked to their foreign ties may be introduced, including at short notice, that may affect employment, access to services within Hong Kong and their ability to readily move assets out of the  territory. A probable immediate consequence will be the acceleration of efforts of those concerned over this loss of perceived protection to consider leaving Hong Kong.

Over the current monitoring cycle (12-19 February), foreign governments are likely going to accelerate their advisories to dual nationals, advising them to register with the Hong Kong Immigration Department if they wish to be considered a national of another country. The Australian government issued a similar advisory on 11 February. Australia, the UK and allies are likely going to increase the pace of facilitating exit of dual nationals from Hong Kong. Foreign companies should be aware that given the sensitivity of the issue and fears over possible sanctions many employees are unlikely to discuss their plans, with many of those who decide to leave doing so without warning.

Meanwhile, pandemic restrictions are in place throughout the territory during the long Lunar New Year period, with previously traditional outdoor events taking place in the virtual environment. Parades and temple visits have been cancelled, with the overall aim of reducing the risk of pathogen spread. There is cautious optimism that new case numbers keep within the current low double-digit thresholds, but a spike in cases stemming from this weekend is anticipated over the current monitoring cycle. The degree of spike will indicate the level of compliance with these containment measures and dictate government response measures.

See details of upcoming protests below.

 

UPCOMING PROTESTS 12 – 19 February

Nothing significant to report.

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 5 – 11 February

Monday 8 February

1000: David held a demonstration at the Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year Market in Victoria Park, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island. here were no reports of any arrests or disruption to local area businesses and travel.

Tuesday 9 February

1000: David held a demonstration outside the Court of Final Appeal, Central district, Hong Kong Island, called ‘Support for Jimmy Lai.’ There were no reports of any arrests or disruption to local area businesses and travel.

Wednesday 10 February

1215: David appeared outside the Central Police District Headquarters, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong Island, where he held a protest under the banner, ‘Reading Apple Daily with You at the Central Police District Headquarters’. There were no reports of any arrests or disruption to local area businesses and travel.

1300: David appeared at the Landmark Hong Kong shopping mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a protest called, ‘Lunch and reading Apple Daily with you - Condemning the indiscriminate arbitrary arrests from the police’. There were no reports of any arrests or major disruption to local area businesses and traffic.

2200: Later that evening, David held a protest at the Tsing Yi Police Station, New Territories, under the same banner called, ‘Lunch and reading Apple Daily with you - Condemning the indiscriminate arbitrary arrests from the police’. There were no reports of any arrests or major disruption to local area businesses and traffic.

Thursday 11 February

1200: David appeared at the at the IFC mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a ‘Lunch with You in Admiralty’ protest. There were no reports of any arrests or major disruption to local area businesses and traffic.