HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 22 January 2021

22 january 2021

THE SITUATION NOW

Overall protest-related incident volumes stayed relatively consistent this monitoring cycle (15 – 21 January), with David spearheading the bulk of activities in Kowloon, New Territories and Hong Kong Island. His focus revolved around three themes: the inauguration of US President Joe Biden, his own trial on charges related to a demonstration in August 2020, and the ‘721 Yuen Long attacks’. David’s protests kept in line with normal patterns of behaviour. He appeared alone, read editions of the Apple Daily newspaper and answered questions from the press or non-participant bystanders. None of David’s events culminated in any arrests nor were there any significant disruptions to nearby travel and transport.

There were numerous calls for flash-mob style protests to occur in light of the ‘721’ attacks, but there was scant reporting on these events. One particular outlier event did garner public attention, however. On Thursday (21 January), a local political activist group called the ‘Tin Shui Wai Connection’ held a protest at the Yuen Long Lennon Wall, Yuen Long, New Territories. The group has been in existence since 2019, and allegedly comprises of members of the Yuen Long District Council. They had gathered to commemorate the ‘721 Yuen Long attack’ and to criticise the Hong Kong government and Chinese Communist Party. Police were present, but did not make any arrests. See details below.

Prior to the events on 21 January, Hong Kong police on Monday (18 January) unconditionally released three teenage activists six months after their original arrests for allegedly ‘inciting secession’ under the national security law (NSL) in July 2020. The activists Yanni Ho, Ho Nok-hang, and Chan Wai-jin were former members of the pro-independence group Studentlocalism. The release of the activists marked the first time that individuals arrested under the Beijing-imposed security law have been released unconditionally since it was promulgated in June 2020. Nonetheless, police warned Ho that they may arrest her again at a later point in time. Tony Chung, the fourth detainee and another former Studentlocalism member, is remanded in custody after being charged with secession under the NSL and two counts of money laundering. Chung was in December 2020 separately sentenced to four months in jail for allegedly disrespecting the Chinese national flag.

The release of the three youths suggests a potential softening of the authorities’ treatment of activists under the NSL after a sweeping crackdown involving the mass arrests of 55 pro-democracy figures over alleged subversion under the NSL attracted international criticism. The mass arrests may have been used as a way to gauge the sentiment and responses of foreign governments towards more extensive use of the NSL against activists by local authorities, with the resulting backlash possibly contributing towards the release of the three former Studentlocalism members. A possible de-escalation of actions targeting activists by local authorities may be aimed at reducing the likelihood of further threats or retaliatory measures by foreign governments, including sanctions.

Then on Wednesday (20 January), David appeared outside the US Consulate General, Central district, Hong Kong Island, to celebrate Biden’s inauguration. He also read a copy of the Apple Daily newspaper, as a symbolic gesture to protest the Hong Kong government’s suppression of media freedoms. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area businesses and traffic during the event.

For related protest information, see details below.

 Member of the Tin Shui Wai Connection protests at Yuen Long Lennon Wall, 21 January 2021/Cupid News


Geopolitics and the local implications

The administration of ex-President Donald Trump on Friday (15 January) announced sanctions targeting six Hong Kong and Chinese officials deemed culpable in the imposition of the NSL. The measure came in response to the mass arrests of 53 pro-democracy activists on 5 January, which has been the largest crackdown on the movement since the implementation of the security laws.

The US government’s sanctions on these officials over the mass arrests of activists were among the final salvo of the outgoing Trump administration’s measures against China. They likely formed part of efforts by the outgoing administration to frustrate the efforts of the administration of President Biden to improve relations with Beijing by drawing more firm lines on various policy issues.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Sunday (17 January) criticised British barrister David Perry, who was called on by the Hong Kong government to prosecute pro-democracy activists, as acting in a ‘pretty mercenary’ manner. Perry was involved with trials of key pro-democracy figures including politician and barrister Martin Lee and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai. Raab disapproved of Perry’s application of the NSL against Hong Kongers under pressure from Beijing, framing Perry’s compliance as a ‘serious PR coup’ for Beijing. Perry subsequently removed himself from the trial when he cancelled his appointment to a team handling the prosecution on Thursday (21 January).  

Perry’s decision to withdraw from the team illustrates the impact of increasingly strained geopolitical tensions between the UK and Hong Kong and Chinese governments potentially has on the reputation of significant figures, institutions and organisations. Raab’s comments underscore continuing frictions over the role of foreign judges within Hong Kong’s increasingly hybridised legal system. The consequences of the prosecution of prominent activists and hybridisation of the territory’s legal system are likely to be assessed by commercial interests in Hong Kong, with significant implications for the territory’s desirability as a commercial hub.

Meanwhile, European Union (EU) member states have been sending representatives to monitor the court hearings of Hong Kong’s democrats facing charges under the NSL or the Public Order Ordinance since 2020, according to an exclusive report by local newspaper Apple Daily on Tuesday (19 January). The practice, which is part of a set of joint measures by the EU states to assess the impact of the NSL, used to be reserved for the trials of human rights activists in mainland China. The Public Order Ordinance is a colonial-era law frequently used to target demonstrators.

An EU spokesperson confirmed the measures and voiced ‘grave concern’ about the NSL and said that the law adversely impacted views of the Chinese government, according to the report. The spokesperson also reportedly said that the measures mean that the EU may alter its policies on asylum, immigration, visas, and right of abode in response to the impact of the NSL in Hong Kong. Closer monitoring and curbs on the use of sensitive technologies and equipment in Hong Kong, as well as increased backing for the territory’s civil society are also potential actions, according to the spokesperson.

The EU states’ joint measures and potential responses underscore the damage that the NSL may inflict on relations between the bloc and China, due to a growing awareness of the hybridisation of Hong Kong’s legal system. The recent arrests of the 55 pro-democracy figures cast doubt on the integrity of a recently agreed upon investment deal between the EU and China.

Of further concern is that the deal was signed without the consent of the incoming Biden administration, in spite of the voiced intensions of EU politicians to act in concert against China over alleged unfair or unjust practices. The coming weeks and months may see EU member states using the bloc’s new sanctions regime against Chinese entities in order to deflect criticism over the deal and demonstrate a strong stance on human rights. Such measures are particularly likely under pressure from the new Biden administration, and would significantly increase the risk of retaliation against EU interests in Hong Kong and mainland China.


Police confronting David at Yuen Long MTR Station, 21 January 2021


Operational implications from COVID-19

On 21 January, the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) reported that there were 70 newly confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, with none classified as foreign-borne. Meanwhile, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department announced that they had extended the registration for COVID-19 vaccines to 21 February. Those eligible are individuals assessed as ‘high-exposure’, which includes people working in food service sectors.

Latest information from Friday (22 January) will have significant implications throughout the territory was added to this report.  

On 22 January, local media reported that the Hong Kong government will impose highly restrictive controls on tens of thousands of residents of a Kowloon district in a bid to control a surge in COVID-19 cases in the area. Citing unnamed sources, the reports say the ‘lockdown‘ in Kowloon’s densely populated Yau Tsim Mong district will come into effect over the weekend with mandatory testing of residents.

According to the reports only those able to produce negative COVID-19 test results, as well as individuals with urgent medical or social needs, will be permitted to leave the area. Government officials will enforce the restrictions, including checking to ensure all residents are tested. The action is the most restrictive to date carried out by the government and has increased concerns similar measures may be imposed elsewhere in the territory unless the pandemic eases or a high degree of vaccination uptake offers a wider level of immunity and reduces pressure of the territory’s public health and medical services.

In another indication of official concern over the threat posed by imported variants of the virus, the local South China Morning Post newspaper reported on Thursday that the government will require all pilots and cabin crew who remain in Hong Kong for more than two hours to quarantine in an officially approved hotel for 14 days. The rule is expected to come into force next week, but many foreign carriers already double-crew their flights into Hong Kong or stop in regional cities to allow for quick turnarounds in order to avoid testing and quarantine requirements. However, the new requirements will greatly reduce the ability of Hong Kong-based staff at Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd to avoid the new rules, and therefore impact on the carrier’s operational capabilities. Locally-based crew members are currently required to be tested on arrival in Hong Kong and remain in a hotel for 24 hours to await the results.

The combination of stricter controls within Hong Kong and a further reduction in air services  due to carriers’ concerns over having their crews quarantined for up two weeks are certain to curtail efforts by foreign companies to deploy staff to the territory. In addition, as other jurisdictions impose tighter border restrictions on incoming travellers, the ability to return personnel to their home bases is also under growing threat. Companies seeking to move staff should consider either accelerating the process or prepare personnel for what may be a protracted period in their present locations.

 

THE WEEK AHEAD

While there are no scheduled protest activities during the current reporting period (22-28 January), there is another significant date in the pro-democracy activist calendar that is very likely going to inspire protests. In keeping with prevailing monthly trends, there are likely going to be protests and gatherings to commemorate the 31 August 2019 clashes between pro-democracy activists and the Hong Kong police at the Prince Edward MTR Station, Mong Kok, Kowloon. Previous demonstrations, including solo ones by David and flash-mob gatherings, have occurred around Prince Edward MTR station and extended to nearby Prince Edward Road, Nathan Road and other major roads in the Mong Kok area. Seemingly spontaneous rallies may also occur throughout the territory, presenting a risk to local area businesses and travel.

In the geopolitical sphere, there will be a significant amount of attention on statements and executive orders coming from the Biden administration in the upcoming weeks. While his administration is intensely focused on key domestic election agendas, including getting the COVID-19 crisis under control and prepping an economic stimulus package, foreign policy decisions will likely come to the public domain in the coming weeks. Key among them is reframing the US’s relations with China and Hong Kong.

Biden is still anticipated to rapidly reverse a large number of policy decisions made by Trump through a raft of executive orders over the coming days, reconfiguring the US along a multilateral rather than unilateral approach on various issues. However, it is unlikely that Hong Kong policy will be included among these revisions, given statements by Biden and his Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken in support of the Hong Kong protesters and the pro-democracy movement. Beijing and Hong Kong should not expect the needle to move towards more hostile relations but instead a momentary pause while the leadership team at the US Department of State embeds itself. Foreign interests in Hong Kong should therefore expect US-China tensions to continue to adversely impact business sentiment during the first half 2021.

See details of upcoming protests below.

 

UPCOMING PROTESTS 22 – 28 January

No planned protests reported.

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 15 – 21 January

Monday 18 January – Thursday 21 January

Varied: Numerous flash-mob style protests reportedly took place throughout the territory to commemorate the ‘721 Yuen Long attack’. No arrests were reported and there were no reports of any significant disruption to local area travel.

Wednesday 20 January

1330: David appeared outside the Consulate General of United States, Hong Kong and Macau, Central, Hong Kong Island, for a gathering to celebrate the inauguration of US President Joe Biden. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area businesses and traffic from the event.

Thursday 21 January

0900: David appeared outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, for a short protest against his own trial. He was charged with public disorder and unlawful assembly stemming from a protest he held in August 2020. There were no reports of any violence or significant disruption to local area travel.

1300: David allegedly held a protest walk between Yuen Long and Nam Pin Wai, Yuen Long district, New Territories, to commemorate the victims of the ‘721 Yuen Long attack.’

1830-2000: Activists from the ‘Tin Shui Wai Connection’ held a protest at the Yuen Long Lennon Wall, Yuen Long, New Territories. The local activist group allegedly comprises of members of the Yuen Long District Council. They had gathered to commemorate the ‘721 Yuen Long attack’ and to criticise the Hong Kong government and Chinese Communist Party. Police were present, but did not make any arrests.

Friday 22 January

1330: David appeared at the Government Secretariat office in Tamar, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, where he submitted a letter addressed to the Financial Secretary requesting the government to provide HKD20,000 (USD2,580) as a cash payout to Hong Kong residents and an extra HKD10,000 (USD1,290) for coronavirus relief. There were no reports of any arrests and no disruption to local area traffic.