HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 15 January 2021

15 January 2021

David carries out protests over court cases against activists; authorities ban a protest-linked website under the NSL; activists launch boycotts against multinational brands; BNO passport-holders under threat of restrictions by Beijing; AmCham survey respondents pessimistic about 2021 business prospects. 

We assess the threats and developments that impact organisations in the week ahead.

THE SITUATION NOW

Throughout the monitoring cycle (8-14 January) the local activist known as ‘David’ carried out various low-level protest activities after a return from the city of Guangzhou, Guangdong province in China. The rallies, in which he was the sole participant, were consistent with David’s usual pattern of activities. They are limited in time so that he can move to a number of locations within a day. Although David’s activities attract attention and police presence, they rarely cause any significant disruption to local area businesses and travel. Authorities tolerate his activities as long as there are no clear violations of the national security law (NSL) and other participants.

David’s protests continue to draw attention to current developments in the pro-democracy movement, with several recent activities outside local courts occurring against the backdrop of intensifying arrests and court cases involving activists.

Pro-democracy activists from 8 to 11 January held a protest dubbed ‘National Lennon Wall Cultural Propaganda Day’ in which they posted pro-democracy materials across Hong Kong. Police on Sunday arrested one woman close to the Hong Kong University (HKU) MTR station on Hong Kong Island, on suspicion of writing a protest slogan on the stone pillar of a flyover and suspected criminal damage. The incident is laden with symbolism, as the local Lennon Wall of the anti-extradition bill demonstrations was situated at the pillars of the flyover near HKU. Numerous pro-democracy propaganda pieces were posted on the wall.

Pro-democracy activists launched a boycott campaign called ‘1.10 Thousand Talents Award Ceremony’ on Sunday (10 January). Firms targeted are those alleged to be supporting the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, including Colgate, GlaxoSmithKline brands Sensodyne and Panadol, as well as sporting apparel company Puma. Activists intended to undermine the credibility and reputation of these companies, posing significant financial risks in a very lucrative market.

A website called ‘HKChronicles’ said that it had received notifications from Hong Kong-based users that that they have since Wednesday (6 January) no longer been able to access the website from the territory. ‘HKChronicles’ primarily publishes reports and images from the 2019 anti-government demonstrations in the territory. The Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) afterwards announced that it had blocked the website under the national security law (NSL).

The invocation of the NSL to bar access to the ‘HKChronicles’ website likely opens up the use of the law as a tool to suppress access to other websites that authorities in China or Hong Kong deem a threat to territory security and stability, with significant implications for local and international organisations. Businesses, particularly those that have garnered support from the pro-democracy movement and/or based in countries that have imposed measures against China and Hong Kong over related issues, should assess the vulnerability of their online presence towards such measures and anticipate potential network disruptions as a result of such actions over the short-term. Media companies, advocacy groups and non-governmental organisations should take note about the growing threat of censorship under the NSL.

The Reuters news agency on Tuesday (12 January) reported that what it termed ‘individuals with direct knowledge of China’s plans’ had revealed Beijing’s involvement in introducing measures intended to further marginalise the territory’s political opposition. One anonymous source is reported saying Beijing had been ‘too patient for too long, and needs to sort things out once and for all’, noting that a campaign to stifle dissent will last at least a year. Since June 2020 when China’s national security law (NSL) was imposed on the territory the Hong Kong authorities have arrested almost 100 opposition figures, disqualified elected legislators, frozen activists' assets and targeted media outlets. Further moves are expected against hundreds of pro-democracy local councillors ahead of elections due in September 2021. In addition, civil servants are likely to be required to demonstrate overt loyalty to China, companies viewed as hostile to Beijing’s actions in the territory will be targeted and the NSL employed to step up censorship of the media and internet.

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the Reuters report or the likely pattern of Beijing’s continued tightening of its controls over Hong Kong. Local people previously active in the pro-democracy movement are assumed to be making their own arrangements as to how to respond to China’s actions. Many able to leave the territory are expected to do so, with the timing dictated by acceptance from foreign countries and the possible imposition of restrictions on the movement of assets or other controls. Overall, further moves by China to impose its version of governance on the territory will continue to erode Hong Kong’s attraction and relevance to foreign companies, with a growing number relocating to other regional centres during the 12-month outlook.

Hoang Lam Phuc, one of the 12 Hong Kongers detained in China in 2020 for illegally crossing the border appeared in one of the territory’s courts on Wednesday (13 January) to hear charges of arson and possession of offensive weapons linked to anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Numerous individuals assembled outside of the court in solidarity with the charged youth. Hoang did not apply for bail and is remanded in custody. His case will resume on 26 February. Prosecutors are deciding whether to press additional charges, including absconding and conspiracy to aid criminals.

Hoang’s case is almost certain to be closely followed by both locals, including pro-democracy activists, and the wider international community. His treatment will serve as a further indicator of the state of Hong Kong’s increasingly hybridised legal system, with significant implications for local and foreign interests. China’s treatment of the 12 Hong Kongers attracted widespread criticism, and the evolving nature of the legal and political environment in Hong Kong remains of significant concern. Sentences serve as a warning and deterrent against street-level protest activities by pro-democracy activists.


Hoang ahead of his court appearance, 13 January 2021 / The Standard Newspaper Publishing Ltd.

If prosecutor’s actions regarding Hoang are deemed overly harsh, this may provoke responses by foreign governments including that of the UK. London is coming under increasing pressure to harden its policy towards China over alleged human rights abuses. The UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission have called for sweeping adjustments in the UK government’s relations with China, including sanctions against officials deemed culpable for alleged human rights abuses. British interests in China may be subject to diplomatic and commercial reprisals in the event that sanctions are imposed, particularly if higher-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials are targeted.

Geopolitics and the local implications

On Tuesday (12 January), Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that the UK had reached an agreement with China by expanding immigration rights for Hong Kongers that hold British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) passports, and that it would be a ‘matter of course’ for the other party to retaliate. Lam’s remarks come after Executive Councillor Regina Ip recommended that Hong Kong adopt China’s nationality law banning dual citizenship. Additionally, Hong Kong residents who hold British National (Overseas) or BNO passports are under threat from being banned by the Chinese government from holding public office in the territory, according to reports on Thursday (14 January). The Chinese government is also considering prohibiting BNO holders from voting in elections.

Lam’s comments and the reportedly threatened measures indicate that the issue of BN(O) passports as a path towards UK citizenship for Hong Kongers fleeing the territory remains a significant source of friction between the UK and China, with Beijing previously having threatened to halt its recognition of the passports. Should Hong Kong eliminate dual citizenship in line with Beijing, then this would likely further stoke bilateral tensions that could involve the targeting of British interests in Hong Kong. Such a measure would also likely force Hong Kongers to choose between one citizenship or the other, likely intensifying the exodus of local talent with the means to leave the territory to other countries, particularly the UK.

Over 40 per cent of firms surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (AmCham) said they were pessimistic about business prospects for 2021, while a third said that the territory has become less competitive as a global centre for businesses over 2020. The quick unravelling of US-China ties continued to be a primary concern for business executives surveyed, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and changes to Hong Kong’s political and economic environment. The AmCham survey underscores the challenges for businesses in Hong Kong that lay ahead over 2021. The situation in Hong Kong is likely to remain high on the agenda of the incoming US administration of President-elect Joe Biden, with probable further actions against pro-democracy activists likely to continue to stoke bilateral tensions. Joe Biden, set to be inaugurated on 20 January, is anticipated to emphasise human rights more strongly than President Donald Trump in his foreign policy.   

Media on Thursday (14 January) reported that Hong Kong police arrested at least 11 individuals allegedly linked to the attempted escape of pro-democracy activists from the territory to Taiwan last year. The 12 activists were arrested by the Chinese authorities at sea, and 10 of them were subsequently imprisoned in China. Those arrested on Thursday include a lawyer who has defended detained activists linked to unrest in the territory during the 2019 protests and the mother of one of those detained in China. 

While all those detained are local Chinese residents there is evidence that foreign nationals have also been involved in helping local opposition and activists sought by the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities evade capture and leave the territory. On 9 January the Hong Kong authorities said they were seeking to prosecute and even extradite two Danish politicians they claim aided former opposition lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung escape to Europe in late November. The case has strained ties between China and Denmark, and can be expected to raise tension with the European Union and Beijing if China seeks to sanction Danish companies or individuals. It is also highly probable other foreign nationals have been and will continue to be involved in helping Hong Kong activists or politicians wanted by the authorities to escape arrest, much in the same way dissidents were smuggled out of China under the so-called ‘Yellowbird’ operation following the 1989 Tiananmen protests in Beijing. Foreign companies should be aware that sanctions could be imposed on their operations and staff in the event nationals from their countries of origin are involved in such actions, and assess how they may mediate the threat to their interests.


Lawyer Daniel Wong arrested, 14 January 2021 / Hong Kong Free Press (RTHK Screenshot)

Operational implications from COVID-19

On Sunday (10 January), Hong Kong recorded at least 31 new coronavirus cases, including 28 locally transmitted. At least three cases have been identified among ferry company crew members, threatening to disrupt this key transport sector. The government has also imposed new restrictions on travellers arriving from the UK and South Africa, where new virus variants are endemic. All travellers from the UK are now required to spend at least three weeks in a third country with low infection rates, followed by three weeks compulsory quarantine in a hotel in Hong Kong on arrival. This 42-day de facto quarantine, coupled with a declining number of air services between Britain and Hong Kong, has effectively halted all but the most essential travel between the two locations.

Efforts to ramp-up the territory’s COVID-19 immunisation programme are potentially stymied by a seeming unwillingness by a large proportion of the population to be vaccinated. A recent Chinese University of Hong Kong survey indicates that less than 40 per cent of Hong Kongers are willing to receive the jab. This figure suggests that the operational disruption caused by the pathogen will likely be prolonged compared to places where vaccination readiness is higher.

THE WEEK AHEAD

David is likely to continue to protest against ongoing arrests and court cases directed against pro-democracy activists over the coming monitoring cycle. Although he is typically the sole participant in his minimally disruptive rallies, they serve to highlight continued sympathies towards the protest movement, including the 12 Hong Kongers who were detained in mainland China. Further targeting of activists is likely to inspire continued street-level activities aimed at keeping the attention of the international community on the situation in Hong Kong.

The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is due to be sworn in on Wednesday (20 January), facilitates a potential bettering of ties between the US and China over the coming months. However, the issue of Hong Kong is likely to remain a key focus of the Biden administration’s China policy, with Biden expected to lay a stronger emphasis on human rights than outgoing President Donald Trump. Additionally, Biden is anticipated to form a united response with US allies against China on various issues. Additionally, increasing pressure within the UK government to act against Beijing over alleged human rights abuses, including against the Uyghur minority, are likely to align London with Washington on this front. Meanwhile, cooperation with the European Union against Beijing has been cast into doubt since the recent signing of an investment deal between the bloc and China despite similar rights concerns. Persisting geopolitical tensions between China and Western countries over issues including Hong Kong is likely to continue to pose a threat to foreign interests in the territory. Tensions could ratchet up if Beijing takes further measures against pro-democracy activists in the territory and ramps up use of the NSL to quash dissent.

Although COVID-19 cases continue to decline, mutant strains from South Africa, the UK, and, more recently, Brazil threaten to impede containment efforts. Potential outbreaks spurred by these strains could cause the caseload to rise and trigger a tightening of restrictions.

See details of upcoming protests below.

UPCOMING PROTESTS

Friday 15 January

2100: Activists are laying down flowers at Pacific Place, Hong Kong Island, to commemorate the death of Marco Leung Ling-kit, the 35-year-old protester who hung a protest banner about the amendment to Hong Kong’s extradition law and fell from a height at Pacific Place on 15 June 2019. He was the first casualty in the protest movement.

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 8 – 14 January

Sunday 10 January

2300: David appeared at Hong Kong International Airport in New Territories

and the IFC mall in Hong Kong Island for protests involving the reading of Apple Daily newspaper after a flight from the city of Guangzhou back to Hong Kong.

Monday 11 January

0900; 1000; 1230: David appeared at IFC mall and Tamar Park, Hong Kong Island, Kings Wing Plaza, New Territories, and Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, Kowloon. These protests included one over the detention of former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai over alleged subversion under the national security law (NSL).

Tuesday 12 January

0900; 0930; 1100: David appeared at the District Court and the Central Government Complex, Hong Kong Island. The protests were in solidarity with six defendants who pled guilty on Monday (11 January) to charges of violating the national security law (NSL) related to violent unrest at Hong Kong airport and a subsequent protest at a shopping mall in 2019.

Wednesday 13 January

0930; 1100; 1145; 1230; 1430: David appeared at Eastern Magistrates' Courts, District Court, Justice Place (Former Central Government Offices), and IFC mall, Hong Kong Island, as well as Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts, Kowloon City, Kowloon to hold various protests under themes including ‘wearing yellow face-masks with you’ and ‘Central district Lunch with You and read Apple Daily’.

Thursday 14 January

1230; 1345: David appeared at Landmark mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island for a ‘Lunch with You in Central’ protest. He then went to Exit G of Central MTR Station, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a ‘Anniversary of Stop and Search by the Police’ protest.