HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 18 December 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
After a relative pause on street-level pro-democracy protests throughout the territory last week, the volume of incident numbers picked up over the recent monitoring cycle (11-17 December). The pro-democracy activist known as ‘David’ embarked on his solo protest campaigns over a three-day period, appearing at multiple venues.
David campaigned for several causes, which are broadly captured under the pro-democracy banner. He protested the police’s targeting of prominent media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai on Friday (11 December) with a charge of violating the national security law (NSL).
David also protested planned reforms to secondary education that critics are concerned will bring the curriculum in closer alignment with Beijing. Pro-Beijing politicians blame elements of the education system on the territory’s extensive social unrest in 2019, which was largely galvanised by local youths.
On Tuesday (15 December), David appeared at Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, and Maritime Square shopping centre, Tsing Yi, New Territories to commemorate the 18-month anniversary of 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.
David also appeared outside the High Court, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, to show support for Chun Man Ma, the pro-democracy activist known as ‘Captain America 2.0’. Ma, who is remanded in custody on charges of violating the NSL, appeared at Hong Kong’s High Court and was denied bail. He is among three other high-profile pro-democracy leaders, including media tycoon and Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai.
On the same day, Director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies and senior adviser at the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, Gu Minkang, encouraged the invocation of article 55 of the NSL in the Lai case which allows Beijing authorities to extradite for trial in mainland China.
If Lai is extradited and tried under mainland China’s legal system, this will certainly garner condemnation by foreign governments, including the UK and the US. An extradition will have a profound impact in Hong Kong as it will validate the fears of similar punitive measures against pro-democracy activists. While the NSL has been instrumental in suppressing street-level protests, the potential for arrest and extradition to China may restrain the movement or serve as a catalyst for mobilisation. For the wider foreign business community, this should serve as a stark warning about its behaviours and activities within the context of the NSL.
On Wednesday (16 December), Hong Kong civil servants on Wednesday swore a new pledge of allegiance to the government. All the territory’s 180,000 civil servants are expected to participate in the ceremony in front of Chief Executive Carrie Lam over the coming weeks. Authorities have threatened those that refuse to swear the pledge with dismissal from their post. The process will likely be completed next month, with all new hires already needing to sign a compulsory loyalty pledge.
Civil servants line up at an oath-swearing ceremony at a government building in Hong Kong as the Beijing-backed government tries to enforce loyalty, 16 December 2020/Hong Kong Government Information Department
Late on 16 December, the Yantian District People’s Procuratorate, Shenzhen, China, formally filed prosecution orders against 10 of the 12 Hong Kongers who tried fleeing to Taiwan but were intercepted by the Guangdong coast guard on 23 August. The remaining two are minors, who will have private hearings and are unlikely to be prosecuted for illegally crossing the border. The others could face up to seven years in prison.
This case is gaining more international attention, especially in light of the Hong Kong police remanding in custody four high-profile pro-democracy activists on charges of violating the national security law (NSL) and clamping down on groups such as St-Politicism, who have been organising street booths and the occasional protest aimed at highlighting the plights of the 12 Hong Kongers. Members of St-Politicism’s most recent rally took place on 1 December, dubbed ‘Save 12 HK youths’. Developments at the Yantian court are likely to serve as incentive for mobilisations in the coming days.
Stock photo: Hong Kong civil servants protest over the extradition law last year, 2 August 2019/Reuters
Geopolitics and the local implications
On Friday (11 December), the US Treasury Department said it had not identified any foreign financial institution ‘that has knowingly conducted a significant transaction’ since 14 October with individuals blacklisted under US sanctions over perceived involvement in China’s crackdown on Hong Kong. The department’s announcement indicates broad compliance with US sanctions by financial entities in Hong Kong. Though the sanctions are more symbolic in nature and have a relatively limited impact in practical terms, they underscore the threats that US sanctions pose to foreign commercial interests in Hong Kong.
Former Hong Kong legislator Ted Hui said that the office of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had contacted him about HSBC’s decision to freeze his bank account. Further details of the conversation are unknown, and information gleaned from Hui could be used to justify additional sanctions against Hong Kong and Beijing. One plausible scenario, especially during the remaining weeks of the US administration of President Donald Trump, is that Washington may consider increasing pressure on foreign commercial interests in Hong Kong that are viewed as facilitating politically motivated acts of retaliation against activists and supporting the NSL. Washington may do so via cooperation with the UK, a close ally that appears increasingly likely to take unilateral and retributive measures against financial firms such as HSBC.
Relations between the UK and Hong Kong/Beijing are becoming increasingly complicated, particularly over London’s facilitation and acceleration of Hong Kongers fleeing the territory via issuance of the British National (Overseas) passport settlement scheme. UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been at the centre of the diplomatic dispute.
His office released a statement in which he said that the NSL violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration, using the charge against prominent pro-democracy activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai as an example. Raab said that the UK government has called on Hong Kong authorities to stop supressing Lai and pro-democracy activists.
Raab’s statement further stokes diplomatic tensions with Hong Kong and China, as they view such activities as meddling in their respective domestic affairs. Conversely, Beijing accused the UK government of breaching the Sino-British Joint Declaration through the BNO scheme amid an intensifying row that exposes foreign and UK commercial interests to unwanted scrutiny and possible retaliation by local authorities.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China has been receiving cash donations over fears that supporters could be targeted amid ongoing anti-money laundering probes targeting activists and organisations. Concerns by supporters of the Hong Kong Alliance underscore increasing pressure on Western countries such as the UK to respond to the allegedly politically motivated freezing of bank accounts tied to pro-democracy activists, including through boycotts of financial firms accused of being implicated.
Operational implications from COVID-19
On Sunday (13 December), Hong Kong recorded at least 95 new coronavirus cases, including 41 with no known source and the highest number since the start of what local health officials describe as the fourth wave of the outbreak. On Saturday (12 December) the government also announced that it had had banned Britain’s BA airline from operating into Hong Kong for two weeks until 25 December after four passengers were found to be infected with the virus on arrival in the territory on Tuesday. Flights by at least three other carriers, KLM, Emirates and Nepal Airlines, have also been suspended for variable periods due to concerns over their role in importing COVID-19.
On Thursday (17 December), Hong Kong recorded at least 96 new coronavirus cases, 90 locally transmitted and the others imported, including 26 with no known source. Many of the new cases are from a cluster at a public housing estate, a construction site and an upmarket hair salon in the Central district. The government has responded to a resurgence in virus cases by re-imposing a wide ranging of restrictions intended to enforce social distancing. Local public health officials warn of an impending ‘explosive outbreak’ unless new infections can be reduced through further restrictions.
THE WEEK AHEAD
The current monitoring cycle (18-24 December) has only two pro-democracy protests scheduled on 24 December (Christmas Eve). Both events have not had the start times or locations publicly disclosed, which is a frequent planning tactic to throw the police off-balance with their responses. Another tactic frequently seen has been the announcement of fresh protests with shorter public notification periods. David has employed this tactic quite effectively. One significant date on the activist calendar that usually influences mobilisations, is the 21 July 2019 ‘Yuen Long attacks’. As this anniversary date falls into this reporting period, there is a very credible possibility of events occurring in the territory, especially in Yuen Long, New Territories.
In COVID-related developments, the territory continues to record high double-digit figures during another wave of the pandemic, forcing the authorities to reassess mobility and business operations restrictions and enact tighter measures. BA, KLM, Emirates and Nepal Airlines have already been targeted with suspensions due to their respective roles on importing cases into the territory. The outcome has been significant operational disruption for these companies. Should the authorities be unable to control case number loads, more restrictions are highly likely over this monitoring cycle.
While COVID-19 continues to impact the operating environment in-situ, worsening diplomatic relations between Hong Kong and Beijing, and the West are generating more business concerns at the strategic levels. The Trump administration continues to impose sanctions on Chinese companies as part of its wider strategic calculus in its ongoing trade war with Beijing, but decisive political issues in Hong Kong provide Washington further incentive to broaden and deepen these embargoes. London, meanwhile, will continue to issue its BNOs that will generate more condemnation by Hong Kong and Beijing, and this is likely to increase the exposure risk to retribution by the local authorities.
See details of upcoming protests below.
UPCOMING PROTESTS 18 – 24 December
Thursday 24 December
2000: Pro-democracy activists are calling for a gathering dubbed, ‘Remembering Every Family Torn Apart This Christmas’ rally. The location has not been disclosed and will likely not be until at least 1-2 hours ahead of the event, suggesting a subversive political agenda. This event will certainly attract the attention of the local police, who are likely to respond with security cordons, threats of arrests and crowd dispersal tactics.
TBC: Pro-democracy activists are calling for flash-mob style rallies in Kowloon dubbed ‘12.24 May I Return to Hong Kong with Peace and Good New with You’. Details on locations are likely to announced at least an hour before the start.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 11 – 17 December
Monday 14 December
0930-2100: David held several pro-democracy protests at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, Kowloon; Airport District Police Station, New Territories; Hysan Place shopping mall, Hong Kong Island; Central Government Complex, Hong Kong Island; and Tsing Yi Police Station, New Territories. His protests were under various themes, including ‘Support Jimmy Lai with you’, ‘Greeting to the confirmed cases on the Police force’, ‘Lunch with you and reading Apple Daily at Causeway Bay’, ‘Oppose the Liberal Studies being reformed’, and ‘Report to the police station with you’.
Tuesday 15 December
1300: Pro-democracy activists gathered at Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island for a ‘Mourning of LEUNG Ling Kit Marco – passed away 18 months ago’ rally.
1500: David held a ‘Attending the court hearing of Captain America 2.0 with you’ rally at the High Court, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island.
1930: David appeared at Maritime Square shopping centre, Tsing Yi, New Territories, for a ‘Mourning of LEUNG Ling Kit Marco with you’ protest.
Wednesday 16 December
0900-1745: David appeared at multiple venues throughout the day for pro-democracy protests, including West Kowloon Law Courts Building, Kowloon; Central Government Complex and Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Hong Kong Island; Cheung Chau Division Police Station, Metroplaza and New Town Plaza shopping malls, New Territories.