HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 4 December 2020
THE SITUATION NOW
November concluded with a surge in protest activities, mainly spearheaded by the pro-democracy activist ‘David’. He appeared at multiple locations throughout the territory on Monday (30 November) to commemorate the anniversary of the 31 August 2019 ‘Prince Edward station incident’ when Hong Kong police allegedly attacked protesters and non-participants at Prince Edward MTR station in Mong Kok district, Kowloon. See details of David’s appearances in ‘PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 27 November – 3 December’ section below.
In keeping with previous trends, David appeared alone, held up commemorative signage, read a copy of the Apple Daily newspaper and answered questions from passers-by. Police were present, and in most cases, set up a small cordon around David, while warning non-participant onlookers and the press from gathering for lengthy periods.
On the same day, dozens of passers-by laid down flowers by Prince Edward MTR station to commemorate the Prince Edward station incident, with three fined by police for littering. Around 20 police officers had cordoned off areas around the exits, while removing flowers and warning against gathering. On 31 August 2019, police allegedly assaulted a group of anti-extradition law activists at the MTR station as they were returning home from an earlier demonstration. ‘831’ is another symbolic date that is commemorated monthly by pro-democracy activists, usually with small memorial events.
Police arrested seven pro-democracy activists in Mong Kok, including members of youth group St-Politicism, for participating in ‘Save 12 HK youths’ protests on Monday, the 100th day since the detention of 12 Hong Kongers by Chinese authorities. Activists manned street booths where they collected letters of support for the detainees. Those arrested for unlawful assembly were granted bail on Tuesday (1 December). On the same day in Taiwan, about 10 black-clad Hong Kongers held a protest with the neon sign ‘SAVE 12’ in the vicinity of Ximen metro station in Taipei to show solidarity with the detained Hong Kongers. The protesters waved flags and distributed postcards to on-lookers and passers-by.
The 12 detained Hong Kongers are expected to stand trial at the Yantian District People’s Procuratorate in China in the coming one to two weeks, according to Chinese authorities. Street-level protest activities relating to the detainees are likely to intensify up to, during, and immediately following their trial, particularly in the highly likely event of an outcome deemed unfavourable by pro-democracy activists.
On 1 December, local news outlet i-Cable dismissed 40 of their personnel. The entire China desk handed in a mass resignation in solidarity with an assistant editor who was fired. The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) said it was closely monitoring the situation, noting that those dismissed included reporters that produced coverage casting the police or the government in an unfavourable light.
The i-Cable situation shows distinct similarities to other media organisations pressured by the local government for their coverage. The Apple Daily publication in August was raided after its owner, the media tycoon and prominent pro-democracy figure Jimmy Lai, was arrested.
The i-Cable incident will undoubtedly cause significant concern for other media firms, particularly over additional crackdowns by the authorities enforcing the national security law (NSL). The impact of such concerns are likely to be assessed by domestic and foreign news organisations, especially those looking to shift their office locations to more media friendly destinations. The New York Times in July said it would relocate some of its operations to Seoul, South Korea, after the NSL was implemented.
A Hong Kong police recreation club in Mong Kok district was targeted in a firebomb attack in the early hours of Tuesday. According to the police, the club was attacked by at least three individuals who threw nine ‘Molotov cocktail’ type firebombs into the facility’s car park, damaging a vehicle. One suspect was detained.
Truck damaged during petrol bomb attack outside Hong Kong police recreation club, 1 December 2020/SCMP
The attack against a police-linked target is unusual, especially since the NSL was imposed in June. However, the incident should be seen in the context of a relatively low-risk action against a ‘soft’ police-linked target. Unlike police stations the club would have minimal security, making the action largely symbolic. Of greater concern to the authorities is whether the incident represents the emergence of a more violent level of opposition to the local and central governments, leading to potentially extreme and even lethal attacks against police, administrative or commercial targets. Companies should assess the threat such attacks could pose to staff, assets and operations in the three-month outlook and seek to reduce their impact through reviewing present security and administrative measures and procedures.
On Wednesday (2 December), a local court handed prison sentences to three leading pro-democracy Hong Kong activists, including the most prominent activist, Joshua Wong. He was sentenced to 13.5 months imprisonment. Agnes Chow received a 10-month term and Ivan Lam, from their Demosisto political party, was given seven months’ detention. All had earlier pleaded guilty to charges of unauthorised assembly in connection to a demonstration in June 2019 outside the Hong Kong police headquarters that attracted thousands of protesters.
Jimmy Lai, 3 December 2020/Reuters
While it was widely assumed the activists would receive custodial sentences, their imprisonment can now be expected to further increase scrutiny of and pressure on the Hong Kong administration by foreign governments and numerous activist groups. Wong and Chow have achieved global recognition, notably in Japan in Chow’s case, and their imprisonment is likely to be viewed primarily as a political rather than legal response to their actions. Further, while they did not receive the maximum three-year sentence allowed by law, their detention on unauthorised assembly charges imply many thousands of mainly young people now also face being criminalised or imprisoned. Foreign companies closely linked to Hong Kong should be aware that the perceived ‘martyrdom’ of the three young activists may cause reputational harm to their business interests beyond the territory. In addition, the prison sentences and the likelihood of more to come will add to the desire of many local residents with the transferable skills valued by international companies to leave the territory as soon as possible, often in order to protect their children.
A Hong Kong court on 3 December charged leading local media owner and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai with fraud and ordered him to be detained until April 2021. Lai and two senior executives of his Next Digital company were charged on Wednesday with allegedly sub-letting part of their office leased from a public corporation linked to the Hong Kong government to the Apply Daily newspaper. Apple Daily is owned by Next Digital, and is a popular tabloid newspaper that has long been critical of the central and local governments.
The order to detain Lai and his associates for at least four months prior to their next court hearing was made on the basis they posed ‘flight risks’ unless held in custody. Given the nature of the charges, brought under Common Law rather than the NSL and viewed by some legal specialists primarily a civil rather criminal offence, the court’s decision is widely seen as at best excessive and at worst vindictive. It also corresponds with other moves within the judicial, law enforcement and penal systems that point the systematic use of increasingly harsh measures against often peaceful dissidents. The now almost daily number of arrests or sentencing of prominent dissidents in Hong Kong, coupled with China’s often assertive foreign policy agenda, is being matched by increased pressure among mainly Western countries to offer a united response to Beijing’s actions. This is certain to further complicate and compromise trade and commercial links, with clear implications for international companies. These pressures are unlikely to be resolved in the medium term, and companies in Hong Kong should prepare for months of uncertainty and potential commercial disruption.
There were no other significant pro-democracy rallies or gatherings during this cycle. See details below.
Geopolitics and the local implications
Chief Executive Carrie Lam in an interview with Hong Kong English-language TV channel HKIBC on Friday (27 November) night said she has ‘piles of cash’ at home as she has no bank account following Washington’s sanctions on her and 14 other senior officials in response to the imposition of the NSL, which has effectively suppressed the pro-democracy movement and emboldened her administration to undermine Hong Kong’s independent judiciary.
Lam’s comments suggest the rather limited concrete effects of the US sanctions on the targeted officials, underscoring their symbolic nature. Lam in August said she has experienced ‘a little bit of inconvenience’ due to sanctions’ preventing her from using her credit card. Such remarks illustrate that Lam’s attitude towards Washington’s measures is likely aimed at currying favour with Beijing.
On 30 November, Beijing announced that China will sanction four US officials over allegations including interference in China’s internal affairs. These are John Knaus, Senior Director for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy and three additional officials under Asia programmes at the National Democratic Institute. The sanction prohibits these individuals from entering China, including Hong Kong and the Macao Special Administrative Regions.
Additionally, China has been concerned that US could lock Hong Kong and China out of the SWIFT transaction system. These threats have been made before, resulting in Chinese organisations switching or considering switching over to a domestic financial messaging system for transactions. A complete shut-off would require a series of primary and secondary sanctions combined with the EU taking similar measures, and this is a complicated and lengthy process that is unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future.
More than 150 parliamentarians from 18 countries in a joint letter on Tuesday (1 December) urged Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step in to ensure justice for the 12 Hong Kongers detained in mainland China. The letter demanded the immediate return of the detainees to Hong Kong and that they be provided with lawyers chosen by them and access to their families.
The letter by the parliamentarians comes as the 12 detained Hong Kongers are expected to stand trial at the Yantian District People’s Procuratorate in the coming one to two weeks. The letter is a symbolic gesture, but one that certainly escalates geopolitical tensions with Hong Kong. The threat of street-level protest activities will increase in the run up to the trial and immediately after, particularly in the highly scenario that the outcome is deemed unfavourable by pro-democracy activists.
Operational implications from COVID-19
On 30 November, Hong Kong recorded at least 73 new cases, down from the 115 recorded on Sunday. In response to the surge in new infections, many of which are unlinked and untraceable cases, the government on Monday announced further restrictions on social gatherings, including a ‘hotline’ for the public to report those they consider to be breaching distancing regulations.
The large number of cases reported was the highest total since August and appears to confirm the territory is now within what it terms the ‘fourth wave’ of the pandemic. The increase in cases and new distancing rules are certain to further delay any moves to reopen internal travel links for at least two weeks and likely into early 2021.
On Thursday (3 December), the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) announced that it had registered 90 new confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases, including 11 with foreign origins. Six of these were Hong Kong citizens who had recently returned from the Philippines, Nepal, Russia and France. The remainder included domestic workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.
One local case involved a Hong Konger, who works as a sushi chef at the Superior Manya Japanese Restaurant on Nathan Road in Mong Kok district, Kowloon. Nine other restaurant employees have been tested, with results unknown so far, and the restaurant has been closed for 14 days. It is uncertain if any customers have been infected or were exposed to the pathogen at the restaurant, which is in a popular shopping area.
THE WEEK AHEAD
The current monitoring cycle (4-10 December) will see a day of protests by David, who will make appearances at three locations, including the General Post Office, Landmark Atrium and Next Digital Office on Friday (4 December). Beyond the weekly protest activities by David, there are no other protests scheduled for the week ahead.
In the geopolitical sphere, diplomatic tensions continue to ratchet up between Hong Kong and China on the one side and the US and its allies on the other. The latest retaliatory sanctions against the aforementioned US officials are more symbolic than substantive, but they do have tactical implications in terms of travel and access to operations and markets. Both sides have not exhausted this form of punitive measure, and more cannot be ruled out, particularly during this erratic transition phase of the US presidency.
As recently as 30 November, the US Department of Defence (DoD) blacklisted some of China’s largest and most powerful companies, including Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, China Construction Technology Co. Ltd., and China International Engineering Consulting Corporation, bringing the number to 35. Should the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump impose further sanctions having more substantive impact on China’s economy, then the threat of retaliation against American interests rises.
Additionally, China has been concerned that the US could lock Hong Kong and China out of the SWIFT transaction system, but again, this is more a symbolic threat due to the complexities and multiple foreign stakeholder buy-in required. While this is very unlikely to occur during this current reporting cycle, momentum for this could gather into the Biden administration and be used as leverage for future negotiations.
Hong Kong has entered its ‘fourth wave’ of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this will likely compel the government to impose more restrictions and delay the reopening of cross-border travel. If case numbers stay consistently high or go higher, then this will dictate the depth, duration and breadth of any related restrictions.
See details of upcoming protests below.
UPCOMING PROTESTS 4 – 10 December
Friday 4 December
1200: David will hold a protest outside the General Post Office, Central district, Hong Kong Island, called ‘Post the Letter with You to 12 Youths’.
1245: David will appear at the Landmark Atrium, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a ‘Reading Apple Daily and Lunch with You in Central’ protest.
1545: David will appear at the Next Digital Office, Tseung Kwan O, New Territories, for protest called, ‘Support Apple Daily and Jimmy Lai with You’.
PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 27 November – 3 December
Monday 30 November
1030: David appeared at the Mong Kok Police Station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, to commemorate the ‘831 Prince Edward station incident’. No violence, travel disruption or arrests were reported.
1130: David then appeared at Prince Edward MTR station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, to commemorate the ‘831 Prince Edward station incident’. No violence, travel disruption or arrests were reported.
1245: David appeared at the Landmark Atrium, Central district, Hong Kong Island, to commemorate the ‘831 Prince Edward station incident’. No violence, travel disruption or arrests were reported.
1500: David appeared at the Central Government Complex, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island, to commemorate the ‘831 Prince Edward station incident’. No violence, travel disruption or arrests were reported.
1800-2100: David appeared at Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island; Tsing Yi MTR station and Tsing Yi Police Station, New Territories, to commemorate the ‘831 Prince Edward station incident’. No violence, travel disruption or arrests were reported.
Varied: Dozens of passers-by laid down flowers by Prince Edward MTR station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, to commemorate the ‘831 Prince Edward station incident’. No violence or travel disruption were reported. Police arrested three participants.