HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 5 February 2021

5 february 2021

THE SITUATION NOW

The recent reporting period (29 January – 4 February) exhibited similar characteristics and protest activity levels as in recent cycles, with the lone pro-democracy activist known as ‘David’ spearheading street-level protests. David highlighted a variety of themes, ranging from freedom of the press to advocacy for the detention of other high-profile activists. Much of his activities took place outside police headquarters, courthouses and the International Finance Centre (IFC) Atrium mall in Central district, Hong Kong Island. As in keeping with current trends, there were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area businesses and travel.

Besides David’s activities, pro-democracy activists held a commemoration gathering on Sunday (31 January) for the 31 August 2019 Prince Edward station incident, in which Hong Kong police allegedly attacked protesters and non-participants at Prince Edward MTR station in Mong Kok district, Kowloon. There was also a large number of police officers stationed in the vicinity of Prince Edward station on the day, some of whom set up a cordon at the station’s exit and barred individuals from laying flowers. Prominent elderly pro-democracy activist Alexandra Wong, also known as Grandma Wong, arrived at 1700 at Exit B of the MTR station and chanted slogans. Grandma Wong notably on 17 October 2020 said that she had been detained for 14 months without trial in mainland China, adding that authorities there had forced her to disavow her activism in writing and sent her on a ‘patriotic tour’ to northern China.

Anti-jurisdiction protests at Prince Edward MTR Station, 31 August 2019

Geopolitics and the local implications

On 31 January, the Financial Times newspaper reported that a growing number of international companies are increasingly concerned by Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s legal system. The paper said many are assessing whether to exclude the territory as a location to arbitrate contracts and other business arrangements relating to China and some other regional countries. Senior lawyers from 10 major legal firms in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo reported a sudden increase in queries from foreign corporate and private clients, primarily based in the US and Japan, regarding the threat to legal commercial protection offered by the territory’s courts.

Hong Kong’s Common Law-based legal system has served as the bedrock for the territory’s success as an international financial and trading centre since the start of the colonial era around 180 years ago and up until the present day. Any erosion of trust in this system by international companies will rapidly translate into a migration to other jurisdictions offering greater legal certainty, notably Singapore. While many international companies are assessing the risks and benefits of remaining in Hong Kong despite China’s evident intention to assume a far higher level of direct control over the territory, indications that a growing number of overseas businesses are considering moving at least some of their operations is likely to accelerate this process over the next 12 months.

On Monday (1 February), two Norwegian parliamentarians announced their nomination of Hong Kong veteran pro-democracy barrister and politician Martin Lee for the Nobel Peace Prize. The parliamentarians said they hoped the nomination would serve as ‘a source of inspiration’ for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and supporters of liberty worldwide. Lee was among 15 pro-democracy activists arrested in April 2020 over an unauthorised assembly in August 2019 and is on bail awaiting trial. Prominent pro-democracy activist Alexandra ‘Grandma’ Wong, as well as the Hong Kong Free Press news outlet have also been nominated for the peace prize.

The Nobel peace prize nomination is in the immediate term likely to raise diplomatic tensions between Norway and China. Beijing in 2010 retaliated against Oslo over the selection of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for the peace prize through measures including the cancellation of a cabinet-level meeting and a Norwegian cultural event in China. The actions came despite the Norwegian government’s insistence that it holds no sway over the Nobel Committee. The nomination of Lee and other members or supporters of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement may trigger similar diplomatic and commercial reprisals by China against Norwegian interests.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on 1 February that the US needed to welcome Hong Kongers fleeing political repression. Blinken criticised China for crackdowns on pro-democracy activists and the silencing of dissidents under the national security law (NSL) and said that Beijing had behaved ‘egregiously’ to flout commitments made during the 1997 hand-over. The secretary of state also said that the US should act multilaterally to confront China.

Blinken’s stern rebuke of Beijing’s Hong Kong policy confirms the new secretary of state’s support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. His statements are likely to increase tensions with Beijing, even while China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi on Tuesday called for the Biden administration to repair bilateral relations. US-China ties seriously deteriorated under former president Trump’s aggressive anti-China rhetoric and policy. Yang advised Washington to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, including Hong Kong and Tibet. Strained relations between Beijing and Washington are likely to remain a significant concern for foreign interests in Hong Kong. Frictions are likely to continue denting business confidence, particularly among American corporates.

On Tuesday (2 February), the US state department said it was ‘deeply concerned’ about Chinese authorities’ treatment of two human rights lawyers that were banned from representing 12 Hong Kongers detained in China. The state department also said it is ready to respond against China’s ‘aggressive and coercive actions’. The two lawyers – Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu – recently had their licences revoked after having been removed from the case and replaced with public defenders.

The state department’s warnings regarding China’s treatment of the two human rights lawyers underscores Washington’s carrying over of a tough stance on China from the previous Trump administration. Despite numerous calls to other world leaders, US President Joe Biden has yet to reach out to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Canada’s foreign ministry on Wednesday (3 February) said a Hong Kong resident with dual Canadian and Chinese nationality was recently required to choose their national status while being held in detention for an unspecified offence. Beijing has long made clear its policy of non-recognition of dual nationality, with numerous legal cases in China involving ethnic Chinese individuals holding foreign passports being treated as Chinese citizens. This position was echoed by the territory’s Security Bureau in a statement that iterated ‘unless a Hong Kong resident has made an application to the city’s Immigration Department and was approved for the declaration of change of nationality, he is still a Chinese national.’

This requirement is in line with China’s policy regarding dual nationality, but any indication that it will be widely enforced has far-reaching implications for millions of local residents with dual-nationality status. There are an estimated 300,000 Canadian nationals in Hong Kong, almost all ethnic Chinese and therefore viewed as subjects of China by Beijing. A further 3.5 million or so local residents are legally entitled to British National Overseas (BNO) status, giving them the right to travel and remain in the UK and apply for citizenship.

 

Police officer standing guard after an 'ambush lockdown' in Yau Ma Tei, 26 January 2021 / AP

Operational implications from COVID-19

On 31 January, Hong Kong recorded at least 53 new coronavirus cases, with government officials warning it will carry out further so-called ‘ambush lockdowns’ without warning to contain new clusters of the virus. Three ‘ambush’ lockdowns were imposed in the past week involving thousands of people, mainly in densely populated areas of Kowloon. The local administration has said it intends to follow a policy of maintaining a range of restrictions in a bid to totally eliminate the virus for the territory.

On Thursday (4 February), the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) registered 22 new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. There were three assessed as foreign-origin cases, including two Hong Kong citizens who had travelled from Nepal and Brazil, respectively. The third was identified as a Russian national working for an air freight service company.


THE WEEK AHEAD

There were two planned protests organised by David for 5 February. There is uncertainty as to whether they took place, and corroboration of these events will be made in the next Hong Kong Protest Manager daily situational report on Monday (8 February). No other protests or related activities have been publicly scheduled for the current monitoring period. Despite this, David is very likely going to dominate the reporting period with his events. Flash-mob protests are also possible as well as any other organised gatherings with no location and timing details announced with long lead times. The current trend is for groups to announce location and times at least 1-2 hours before the start. This is largely to keep the police off-balance with their response and to ensure maximum time for the protest event. 

Diplomatic tensions between China and Hong Kong on one side and the US and Western allies on the other are likely going to ratchet up over the current monitoring period. In the US, the impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump will dominate the media headlines and public discourse, but this is unlikely to impact the work of the US state department and its relations with China and Hong Kong. Count on more statements and possible measures from the state department. The apparent snub of Beijing amid calls for a reset to the relationship suggest that ties will remain strained in the long term. US interests in Hong Kong are likely to assess the impact of continued poor bilateral relations in spite of earlier hopes for better ties on staff, assets, and operations over the coming months.

Recent developments regarding Beijing’s policies on dual citizenship will likely weave its way into the discussions among governments and foreign corporates as they assess the plausible impacts. There are thousands of local residents, including many among the commercial and political elites, with US, Australian, New Zealand and European Union passports. Many will now calculate to what extent this status, which would in theory require all who opt for foreign nationality to apply for employment visas and other permissions to remain in Hong Kong, will be applied. Regardless, this apparent change in policy will add to already high levels of concern among many residents and result in foreign companies facing the loss of many of their valued local staff to emigration.

COVID-19 will continue to dominate the operating environment throughout the territory. The government’s ‘ambush lockdowns’ are part of a new containment strategy that was abruptly implemented. Despite the social anxieties and uncertainties about the seemingly arbitrary application of the lockdown, it is still too early to assess its overall impact in reducing the number of infections. The territory has so far avoided blanket lockdowns, and this is still a viable option, should this current tactical response prove ineffective. A blanket lockdown would, however, likely have significant ramifications on the local economy.

See details of upcoming protests below.


UPCOMING PROTESTS 5 – 11 February

Friday 5 February

1200: David plans on holding a protest at Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong Island.  The protest is called, ‘Lunch with You’. This event has not been confirmed.

1430: David scheduled a protest to take place outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon, where he will call on the release of 26 pro-democracy activists, including Joshua Wong, Jimmy Lai, Leung Kwok Hung and Lee Cheuk Yan. This event has not been confirmed.

 

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 29 January – 4 February

Tuesday 2 February

1245: David held a protest at the IFC Rooftop Garden, IFC Atrium mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a protest calling for the release of Jimmy Lai, the Apple Daily owner remanded in custody on charges of violating the NSL. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel and commerce.

1430: David appeared outside the Police Headquarters, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island, where he also delivered a petition calling for the Commissioner of Police to clarify previous comments about alleged police violations and arrests in 2020. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel.

Wednesday 3 February

1000: David held a protest outside the Police Headquarters, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island, where he also delivered a petition calling for the Commissioner of Police to clarify previous comments about alleged police violations and arrests in 2020. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel.

TBC: David appeared at the IFC Atrium mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a protest called ‘Support for Freedom of Press’. He read a copy of the Apple Daily. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel and commerce.

Thursday 4 February

TBC: David had an unscheduled appearance outside the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Sai Ying Pun, Western district, Hong Kong Island, for a protest calling on the government to assist deposed Myanmar president, Aung San Suu Kyi. David also read a copy of the Apple Daily newspaper. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel.

1230: David appeared at the IFC Atrium mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island, for a solidarity protest for Aung San Suu Kyi. He hinted that he may appear at the same site for another demonstration. There were no reports of any arrests or significant disruption to local area travel and commerce.