HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 14 August 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
Over the recent monitoring period (7 - 13 August), there were fewer public protests but there was a significant amount of social media attention from pro-democracy activists about the recent arrest of well-known media tycoon, Jimmy Lai, and his staff at the Apple Daily news outlet. As in previous monitoring cycles, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, related restrictions and the enforcement of the national security law (NSL) continues to suppress organised large-scale street-level protests. Instead, and as in recent weeks, activists have been launching spontaneous flash-mob rallies, generally involving fewer people and at limited number of locations.
This week’s activity began with a protest on Saturday (8 August), when there was a public commemoration on the nine-month anniversary of the death of Zhou Zile, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student-activist who fell from a carpark while allegedly being chased by police during a protest. He later succumbed to severe head trauma days later at hospital. During Saturday’s protest, police arrested 26 activists on charges of illegal assembly and violating a public health ordinance related to COVID-19 during the memorial service at the Suntech parking lot in Tseung Kwan O New Town, New Territories. About a dozen reporters with accompanying media crew members were at the scene who were questioned by the police and the police media liaison team. They were asked to stop filming the event while the police inspected their media credentials.
Then on Tuesday (11 August), pro-democracy activists held multiple ‘Sing with You’ rallies at shopping malls, including Langham Place (Mong Kok district, New Territories), New Town Plaza (Sha Tin district, New Territories) and tmtplaza (Tuen Mun district, New Territories). The activists had gathered under the banner ‘Fearless of the Suppression-Sing Activity’ in reference to the government clampdown on civic rights in light of the NSL. Some journalists were harassed and forcefully subdued during questioning.
Activists at Langham Place holding Apple Daily newspapers and chanting ‘The Five Demands are Indispensable’, 11 August/Li Zetong
The increased scrutiny and harassment of media personnel in recent weeks has been growing, and is garnering more attention amongst Hong Kong’s activists as well as internationally. Foreign media organisations should pay particular attention to this new threat dynamic, especially in light of the recent arrest of a Hong Kong-based freelancer for UK broadcaster ITV. Wilson Li was reportedly detained on Monday (10 August) on charges of ‘collusion with foreign forces’ under the NSL. Another potentially significant figure who was arrested is Agnes Chow, who the police also charged with ‘collusion with foreign forces’ under the NSL. The 23-year-old has been very active in the pro-democracy drive, and nicknamed ‘the real Mulan’, in reference to the Chinese folklore heroine also depicted in a very popular yet controversial Disney film. Activists on social media have started the #FreeAgnesChow campaign, which has circulated internationally and gained a significant amount of attention. It is this type of central figure and campaign that mobilises activists for street demonstrations.
The arrest of Jimmy Lai dominated the volume of incident reporting over the monitoring cycle. Police on Monday (10 August) arrested one of Hong Kong’s leading media owners. Lai has extensive media holdings and is a long-time pro-democracy activist and critic of the local and Beijing governments. He was detained under the NSL for alleged ‘foreign collusion’ and other offences, including fraud. His two sons and a number of other company employees were also detained in the first use of the NSL against media in the territory.
Police take away Jimmy Lai for questioning and charges, 10 August/Getty Images
On Thursday (13 August), a lone activist, very prominent in the pro-democracy movement, held a short-lived protest at Hong Kong International Airport Bus Terminal. He was met by around 20 police officers, who briefly detained him for questioning and then placed him on a bus bound for Yuen Long, Yuen Long district, New Territories. The activist reportedly held his solo demonstration to commemorate the one-year anniversary of clashes between anti-extradition law/pro-democracy protesters and police at Hong Kong International Airport. In August 2019, thousands of black-clad demonstrators converged on the terminal building but were halted by anti-riot police, who used batons and pepper spray to keep the protesters at bay. The protesters had first gathered at the main bus terminal and then dispersed to the main terminal building, train station and nearby access roads. This latest protest was dubbed, ‘Unforgettable Airport Battle—The Airport and You Lunch’, and highlights the importance of significant dates for activist mobilisations.
Geopolitics and the local implications
On 10 August, the Chinese foreign ministry imposed sanctions on 11 US citizens including lawmakers Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, as well as Kenneth Roth – the executive director of US-based Human Rights Watch – and Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, another US-based NGO. The individuals were targeted for ‘egregious behaviours on Hong Kong-related issues.’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the sanctions were in direct response to the US state department’s decision on 7 August to issue targeted sanctions against 11 Hong Kong and China-based individuals, including Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.
The reciprocal moves underscore a continued escalation in political tensions between Washington and Beijing, which have been exacerbated by China’s national security law (NSL) on Hong Kong which was imposed in July; on Monday, police arrested one of the territory’s leading media figures for ‘foreign collusion’ under the new law. Further arrests of local residents and Chinese sanctions of foreign-based nationals, particularly US citizens, who have made critical statements towards China are highly likely in the three-month outlook. The bilateral geopolitical friction is highly likely to continue to escalate over this timeframe, as US President Donald Trump seeks to ramp up support ahead of presidential elections in November.
In a notice issued on Tuesday (11 August), US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that goods made in Hong Kong for export to the US must be labelled as made in China as of 25 September. Exports from the territory to the US had previously been allowed to declare ‘Hong Kong’ as their location of origin.
As Hong Kong’s economy is dominated by its large services sector, the practical impact of the measure is likely to be small. 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, the treatment of China’s Uyghur population, Chinese trade practices, as well as disagreements over Hong Kong’s political status. Diplomatic relations between the US and China are likely to remain poor until at least November’s presidential election, when a potential change in US leadership may lead to a modest improvement in Sino-US ties. Companies with interests in Hong Kong’s export industries should assess how the latest measure and removal of the territory’s US trade privileges are likely to impact operations, finances, and planned investments.
Local media on Thursday (13 August) reported 40 per cent of American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Hong Kong members are considering moving capital, assets or operations from the territory due to concerns over the national security law (NSL) imposed by Beijing and US government sanctions. Specific concerns relate to the ambiguity of the NSL and the implications of the end of Hong Kong’s preferential trade status with the US on a wide range of commercial and legal issues. In addition more than 50 per cent of individuals who responded to the survey, which represented 13 per cent of AmCham’s members, said they were actively considering leaving Hong Kong.
The AmCham survey should be viewed as indicative of the combined impact of the NSL, US sanctions and tariffs and COVID-19 on business confidence among US companies. Other foreign companies, notably from Western economies, are likely to share similar concerns and sentiments. The six-month outlook is likely to be crucial in determining whether the AmCham survey represents a snapshot or an indicator of a more substantial trend. Key future issues during this period include the outcome of November’s US elections, the course of the coronavirus pandemic and actions of the local and Beijing governments’ towards peaceful dissent. Many companies are likely to ‘war game’ the various scenarios offered by this combination of factors before making any final decision to relocate a significant part of their business from Hong Kong. However, as the past six-month period illustrated, the speed and implications of unforeseen events can - and most probably will - alter many planning assumptions and require senior management to quickly reassess their corporate options.
Operational implications from COVID-19
As of 13 August, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) has registered 69 new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the territory. Four have been assessed as imported cases, comprising of two Filipino nationals, an Ethiopian airline pilot and a Hong Kong citizen who returned from India. The CHP recorded 4,313 cases. Thursday’s figure (of 69) makes the eleventh consecutive day that Hong Kong has registered 100 or few cases across the territory. The overall trend of infections over the reporting period remained down against the preceding 7-day period, when more than 100 new infections were recorded each day. While new case numbers continue to decline, it is evident that the pandemic and the associated restrictions are limiting street-level protest activities and this likely to be the prevailing trend over the next 7-day monitoring cycle.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Lai's past actions and statements made him an obvious target for the NSL, and the charges he faces are sufficiently serious for the authorities in China to demand he be tried in their court system. Such an outcome would greatly increase concerns among local and foreign residents over their security in Hong Kong, almost certainly accelerating the migration of individuals and commercial interests out of the territory. Further, as Lai is a British citizen, the United Kingdom government is certain to criticise both Hong Kong and China over his detention, increasing the already high degree of tension between the two countries. As there is no realistic prospect of either the local or central government reversing or moderating their actions against those it identifies as opponents, further arrests can be expected, potentially including other foreign nationals.
The police are also focusing more attention on journalists and media crews, especially those wearing yellow high visibility vests identifying themselves with ‘Press’ written across the back, at these events. Police officers and members of the media liaison team have been on hand to inspect credentials. In some instances, journalists have been harassed and detained for questioning, while in some others, reporters have been subdued resulting in injuries. It has also been reported that the police have a list of ‘trusted’ and ‘mistrusted’ media organisations, and that those in the latter have been targeted and barred from covering such events. The police have not publicised nor confirmed the existence of either list. They have warned media outlets they may be prohibited from covering protest and police operations, depending on their behaviour. Those deemed obstructing police duties and reporting in a biased manner will be barred from operating.
Images of police violently subduing activists during demonstrations on Tuesday (11 August), especially one image of police kneeling on the neck of an unidentified activist, have been garnering a significant volume of condemnation against the police and Hong Kong government. One particular photo has drawn comparisons to the images of the death of George Floyd, an African-American man, in police custody during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, US. Such images are widely circulated for propaganda, but have the power to influence protest activities. The campaign to release prominent Hong Kong activists, including Chow, will serve as a useful rallying call for others to potentially mobilise over the next monitoring cycle. And the lone activist who held a demonstration at Hong Kong’s international airport underscored the influence that significant dates have in the pro-democracy movement’s calendar.
As of compiling this report, there are no other planned demonstrations for the upcoming week largely due to the resurgence of coronavirus and intensified security laws. Spontaneous gatherings triggered by domestic and international developments cannot be ruled out.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 7 – 13 August
Saturday 8 August
1800: Activists gathered for a memorial service to remember the death of Zhou Zile, a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student-activist who passed away in 2019 during pro-democracy demonstrations. They had gathered at the Suntech parking lot in Tseung Kwan O New Town, New Territories. Police arrested 26 activists on charges of illegal assembly and violating a public health ordinance related to COVID-19.
Tuesday 11 August
1800: Activists rallied at Langham Place, Mong Kok district, Kowloon; New Town Plaza, Sha Tin district and tmtplaza (Tuen Mun Town Plaza) Tuen Mun district, New Territories for ‘Sing with You’ protests under the banner ‘Fearless of the Suppress’. Police arrested 36 activists at Langham Place and New Town Plaza.
Thursday 13 August
1200: An activist arrived at the Hong Kong International Bus Terminal, Chek Lap Kok island for a protest and was swiftly met by around 20 police officers, who briefly detained him for questioning and then placed him on a bus bound for Yuen Long, Yuen Long district, New Territories.