HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 21 August 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
Geopolitical developments continued its dominance of incident reporting over the monitoring period (14-20 August), and significant street-level protest activities were largely paused. Typhoon Higos made its appearance off the coast on 18-19 August, bringing inclement weather conditions that prevented activist mobilisations. Much of the activity by pro-democracy activists was on social media, where numerous posts focussed on the Hong Kong government’s continual suppression of press freedoms and other liberties. Particular attention was also paid to another significant date in the pro-democracy activist calendar—21 July.
On 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, underscoring the extent of violence the Hong Kong authorities will sanction to suppress pro-democracy efforts. Typically, there are calls for rallies at Yuen Long station, specifically at ‘Exit B’, and other popular venues. This Friday (21 August), is no different. There have been multiple calls for rallies at Yuen Long station and Yoho Mall, Yuen Long district, New Territories.
Geopolitics and the local implications
Relations between the British and Hong Kong governments continued to worsen. On Saturday (15 August), the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) halted all training programmes for the Hong Kong Police, citing the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as a reason. An MOD spokesperson added that all contracts with the Hong Kong government will be reviewed when COVID-19 related travel restrictions are lifted.
On the same day, Chief Executive Lam announced (via her Facebook page) that she had severed ties with the UK-based University of Cambridge by relinquishing her honorary fellowship from the university’s Wolfson College. This had been a potential outcome as the college had reportedly considered terminating the fellowship due to mounting pressure from the British government.
On Sunday (16 August), China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) released video footage of its Hong Kong garrison conducting drills in the South China Sea. CCTV coverage of the exercise shows PLA elements firing cannons and torpedoes from the vessel Huizhou.
There was a continuation of concerns in the private business sector regarding Hong Kong’s national security law (NSL) and its implications, compelling foreign businesses to move parts of their respective operations outside the jurisdiction.
On Monday (17 August), Singapore-based company, BIGO Technology, announced that it was relocating its servers from Hong Kong to Singapore in response to the enactment of the national security law (NSL) in the territory.
Then on Wednesday (19 August), the US government informed the Hong Kong authorities that it had suspended or terminated three bilateral legal agreements related to shipping industry taxation and the transfer and extradition of criminal suspects between the two jurisdictions. The unilateral suspension or termination of the accords follows previous US measures intended to signal Washington’s opposition to Beijing’s recent decision to impose China’s national security law (NSL) on Hong Kong. The US is the latest country to suspend the agreements following the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In response, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong government read out an official reprimand during a press conference, accusing the US administration of President Donald Trump of showing ‘disrespect for bilateralism’. That spokesperson also called on the Trump administration to cease interfering in the territory’s internal affairs.
Operational implications from COVID-19
Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) continued to report declines in the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases. As of Thursday (20 August), the CHP reported fewer than 100 cases for the 18th consecutive day. Eighteen cases were confirmed, including one imported who was identified as a recently repatriated citizen from India. Two Indonesian domestic helpers, including one from the Cheung Hing Building in Mong Kok district, New Territories, and the other employed at the David Cheung Employment Agency in Tsuen Wan, New Territories were also recorded. The two have been classified as domestically-originated cases. As new case numbers continue to decline, there is cautious optimism that routine business activities and travel conditions will resume to normal. As and when the Lam government relaxes restrictions, the protest threat is likely to rise in a commensurate manner. Current COVID-19-related restrictions have served as a useful tool to suppress public protest activities.
THE WEEK AHEAD
Over the upcoming monitoring cycle (21-27 August), there are likely going to be worsening of geopolitical tensions between the Lam administration and foreign governments, who have expressed condemnation and profound concerns over the NSL and its usage against the pro-democracy movement.
The halting of UK government training contracts with the Hong Kong Police is another blowback. Though there are very legitimate reasons, this development should serve as a stark warning to organisations with service contracts in Hong Kong that may be under risk of frustration and/or cancellation from related health and political issues.
Lam’s decision to give up her fellowship was a pre-emptive move likely to save her from public humiliation, particularly as Wolfson College had in July notified her that it was considering stripping her of the honour in response to the passage of the NSL. The university had also received a significant amount of pressure from the UK parliament to sever ties. It is uncertain if the college or the university will suffer any repercussions from this issue, particularly anything pertaining to collaboration in research and education with Hong Kong-based institutions and/or mutual student exchange opportunities.
BIGO Technology’s announcement was anticipated, and its impact on the company is uncertain. However, its move adds to a growing list of tech companies relocating from Hong Kong due to surveillance concerns. With the NSL, the authorities have expansive powers to monitor data and internet services. These relocations could also widen the unemployment gap in the tech sector, especially if vendors are being dropped, raising the labour unrest risk across the territory.
Security tensions in the South China Sea continue to ratchet up with the Chinese military ramping up its presence and activities there. More recently, two US naval aircraft carriers, USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz, have been conducting long-range bombing and aerial surveillance exercises as part of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The show of force is undoubtedly concerning PLA forces, which have responded with similar exercises. These events have a credible potential of stoking anti-American sentiments and inciting related rallies targeting the US Consulate in Hong Kong.
While the termination of the extradition accord was seen as inevitable given China’s pretentions that the NSL applied globally, the end of the reciprocal tax agreement will have an immediate financial impact on Hong Kong-based international shipping companies that will now be liable for a higher tax rate when they deliver cargo to the US. The decision to remove the exemption is in line with earlier US sanctions or suspension of commercial and trade privileges, some explicitly intended to protect Hong Kong from direct interference by Beijing by placing an economic value on the maintenance of the post-colonial status quo. The imposition of the NSL has negated these advantages, and further US economic measures intended to emphasise Washington’s opposition to Beijing’s actions can be expected in the three-month period ahead of the US presidential elections. Should Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden win the elections, it is difficult to see the US stance changing significantly, though there may be more concerted efforts at influencing change through less hostile incentives and dialogue.
At the street-level, there is a fairly good possibility of demonstrations by pro-Beijing activists outside the US Consulate General in Central district, Hong Kong Island, in the foreseeable future.
The suspension of the extradition agreement also coincided with revelations that the Hong Kong authorities issued arrest warrants for six Hong Kong pro-democracy activists living abroad, including one dual national residing in the US. The six are warned on charges of sedition, incitement of secessionism and colluding with foreign governments. This is an extraordinary development as it marked the first time that the Hong Kong authorities have sought the arrest of such activists outside of Hong Kong’s territorial jurisdiction. It is a broad application of the NSL, which is increasingly being used as a political tool that can pose significant legal liabilities for any entities (domestic or foreign) deemed to violate the law.
There are a number of protests planned for the upcoming week, with the first event kicking off being the ‘721’ commemoration rallies planned to take place at Yuen Long MTR Station and Yoho Mall. See details below. Another protest is scheduled for 24 August in Mong Kok district, New Territories; however, a specific rallying point and type of activity are unknown at the time of reporting.
Friday 21 August
1300: Activists plan on rallying at Exit B of Yuen Long Station, Yuen Long district, New Territories to commemorate the ‘721’ attacks.
TBC: Activists plan on gathering at the Yoho Mall, Yuen Long district, New Territories to commemorate the ‘721’ attacks.
Monday 24 August
1800: Activists are calling for a rally at the Canal Road Flyover, Wan Chai district, Hong Kong Island, for an anti-police rally.
As of compiling this report, there are no other planned demonstrations for the upcoming week; however, this does not negate the possibility of spontaneous gatherings triggered by domestic and international developments.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 14 – 20 August
Nothing significant to report.