HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 28 August 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
The downward trend in incident volumes for street-level protest activities continues to define previous monitoring periods and this one (21-27 August) across the territory. This has mainly been driven by restrictions on public gatherings due to novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the fear of arrest under the national security law (NSL).
The reporting cycle began with a rally at Yoho Mall in Yuen Long district, New Territories on Friday (21 August), where around 11 pro-democracy activists clad in black t-shirts initially gathered at Yuen Long West Rail Station before moving to the mall’s main atrium. There they held a peaceful protest, chanting slogans such as ‘721 Don’t See People’ and ‘Recover Hong Kong’s Revolution’. Police were present and asked protesters for identification; after repeated requests to vacate the mall, they eventually issued activists with fines for violating the public gathering ban.
Following this incident, on Thursday (27 August) activists wearing black shirts gathered at the Tuen Mun Police Station on Pui To Road, Tuen Mun district, New Territories. Several media people and non-participant onlookers surrounded the activists. They had gathered to protest the arrests on Wednesday (26 August) of 16 individuals, including two opposition lawmakers Lam Cheuk-ting and Ted Hui, on charges related to anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Lam said he had also been accused of rioting during demonstrations on 21 July 2019. Demonstrators and members of the opposition have accused the police of collusion with the attackers in the Yuen Long attacks on 21 July 2019.
Activists, press and onlookers gather outside Tuen Mun Police Station, 27 August
Aside from the relative dearth in protest-related incident reporting, there were some interesting developments that are shaping one of the core arguments among pro-democracy activist circles, and that is the continual suppression of basic human rights and democratic freedoms.
A Hong Kong court on 21 August denied an application for the release of the first person charged with inciting terrorism and separatism under the NSL. The landmark ruling was met with condemnation on social media and instant messaging boards by pro-democracy activists. The ruling is likely to intensify local and international concerns around the controversial legislation, potentially curbing protest activity.
On Monday (24 August), a Hong Kong court eliminated two private prosecutions brought to court by opposition lawmaker Ted Hui, including one against a police officer accused of shooting a demonstrator in 2019. The development stands in contrast to hundreds of ongoing prosecutions against demonstrators arrested during rallies in 2019, and against the backdrop of a recently published report by a UK parliamentary group that accuses the Hong Kong police of human rights abuses against medical and humanitarian workers throughout demonstrations. Activists accuse the court of preventing citizens from exercising their legal rights.
There was one outlier incident that is cause for concern, particularly for leading pro-democracy figures. On Tuesday (25 August), Civil Human Rights Front and Sha Tin District Councillor Jimmy Sham’s office received a suspicious package. Written on it was ‘Caution, Danger,’ the parcel contained toilet paper, blades, syringes, and masks.
The development follows violent attacks on Sham, who assisted in organising several anti-extradition bill protests and ran in the pro-democracy primaries in July 2020, since August 2019. The incident is being investigated by the police. The package was likely an attempt to intimidate Sham and suppress the pro-democracy movement, but it may serve as another rallying call for future mobilisations.
Geopolitics and the local implications
Chinese authorities on 23 August arrested at least 10 people after intercepting a vessel off the coast of the southern Guangdong province, according to the provincial Coast Guard on 26 August. The arrests coincided with reports by Hong Kong media citing unnamed sources that 12 people from Hong Kong were sailing to Taiwan, where they sought political asylum. Hong Kong media identified one of the escapees as Andy Li, who they said was recently arrested under the NSL. Hong Kong police Chief Chris Tang on 27 August stated he had no information concerning the arrest and pursuing information relating to reports that a pro-democracy activist was arrested. If confirmed, the incident would mark the first time that Chinese authorities have arrested Hong Kongers attempting to exit the territory. It would also signal a possible further decrease in morale by pro-democracy activists under the duress of growing arrests driven by the NSL.
Footage of Chinese Coast Guard detain alleged fleeing Hong Kong citizens, 23 August/Dimsum Daily
On 25 August, pro-democracy activist Nathan Law in a visit to Italy said that Chinese firms such as Huawei Technologies threaten the West and that Western governments should be careful in their business interactions with Beijing. Law made the statement to journalists in Rome before Italy’s foreign minister was expected to meet China’s State Councillor Wang Yi and discuss issues including the implementation of 5G technology in Italy. Law’s statement signals increased efforts by pro-democracy activists to counter Beijing’s narrative in Western countries and draw attention to their cause regarding Hong Kong. Such efforts may raise scrutiny over governments and businesses conducting business with China in the short-to-medium term.
The US Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau on 26 August confirmed that a staff member had been physically assaulted and injured while en route at 1600 local time from Garden Road towards Central district, Hong Kong Island. The suspected attacker was arrested and investigations into the incident are ongoing.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on 26 August accused London-headquartered bank and financial services company HSBC of assisting Beijing’s ‘political repression’ in Hong Kong. Pompeo stated he was ‘dismayed’ that executives from Next Media, a pro-democracy media group, were reportedly not able to access their HSBC accounts. Next Media is partially owned by media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai, who was recently arrested under the NSL. HSBC declined to comment.
Operational implications from COVID-19
Chief Executive Carrie Lam on 21 August announced that novel coronavirus (COVID-19) mass testing would commence on 1 September. The mass testing, which is being conducted in conjunction with healthcare officials from mainland China, has raised accusations by activists that it will be used to collect DNA data in order for Beijing to tighten its grip on the territory.
Hong Kong’s health authorities reported 19 new coronavirus cases on 25 August, increasing the previous day’s nine infections with 16 locally transmitted. The three imported cases involved a seaman from Egypt and two returnees from India on a flight that had more than 20 passengers confirmed infected. Almost all were locally transmitted, with clusters identified in elderly care homes. The decline in infection rates has led the government to again relax some social distancing rules, notably relating to evening restaurant opening hours, with effect from Friday (28 August).
In another development, an arriving passenger screened at Hong Kong’s airport was found to be reinfected with the COVID-19 virus, the first known case of its kind in the world. The Hong Kong researchers’ findings are being closely studied to assess whether the individual contracted the same viral disease twice, or if the second infection was caused by a separate and possibly mutated version of COVID-19. The consequences of the former could compromise the present effort to discover a vaccine capable of permitting mass immunisation and a resumption of pre-virus economic activity.
THE WEEK AHEAD
In terms of upcoming protests in the current cycle, there have been a considerable amount of calls on social media platforms for gatherings to take place on 30-31 August to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the ‘8/31 Prince Edward station attacks’. On 31 August 2019, Hong Kong police allegedly attacked protesters and non-participants at Prince Edward MTR station in Mong Kok district, Kowloon. Since then, this significant date has been commemorated in one form of public protest or another. For this upcoming date, activists have called for several flash-mob style protests to take place across the territory. However, there have been some key venues cited across encrypted instant messaging platforms and social media. See details below.
The attack on the US Consulate staff member is a standout event, yet extremely rare. Assuming that the motive was in retaliation for the ongoing tense relations between the Hong Kong government and Washington, then it should serve as a stark reminder of the security risks to US citizens and other Western expatriates in the territory, particularly those in dispute over the territory’s increasing efforts to erode democratic norms and human rights. Although the assailant’s motives remain unclear, the incident could be indicative of a heightened risk of low-level attacks not only against foreign diplomatic personnel but also the broader expatriate workforce across the territory. Such attacks could increase with frequency and targets may especially include diplomats of countries perceived as adversarial to China or that have taken unfavourable stances towards the local or central governments.
Pompeo’s criticism of HSBC adds another layer of tension to worsening diplomatic relations with the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. They are likely to invoke the ire of pro-Beijing activists, which may protest in response and accuse Washington of meddling in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Likely flashpoints for such rallies include areas outside the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau in Central district, Hong Kong Island.
The government is considering relaxing COVID-19-related restrictions from 28 August. Provided the transmission rate remains stable, the relaxed rules include the permitting of some businesses, including sports premises, beauty parlours, and cinemas, to reopen. The move comes as local COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong have declined over the past weeks. If this trend continues, further restrictions are likely to be lifted, including those on public assembly, and this would allow for scaling up of rallies in terms of frequency and participation numbers.
Sunday 30 August
1430: Activists are planning to hold a rally to commemorate the ‘8/31 Prince Edward attacks’ at multiple locations including:
- Dragon Centre, Sham Shui Po district, Kowloon
- TST Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui district, Kowloon
- MOKO shopping centre, Mong Kong district, Kowloon
The exact gathering points at each location will be announced two hours in advance.
Monday 31 August
TBC start times: Multiple gatherings are planned, most likely flash-mob type events, to commemorate the ‘8/31 Prince Edward attacks. Activists plan on gathering at Prince Edward MTR Station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon. Activists have also called for rallies across the territory; however, exact locations and timings are likely to be announced on the day.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 21 – 27 August
Friday 21 August
1830: Activists gathered outside Yuen Long West Rail Station Exit B and then moved Yoho Mall in Yuen Long district, New Territories for a peaceful demonstration inside the main atrium.
Thursday 27 August
1900: Activists wearing black shirts gathered at the Tuen Mun Police Station on Pui To Road, Tuen Mun district, New Territories. They had gathered to protest the arrests on 26 August of 16 pro-democracy activists.