HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 8 January 2021

8 january 2021

David ushers in the new year with a series of low-level protests; Hong Kong police send stark message to pro-democracy movement with mass arrests, including that of an American lawyer; US state department threatens additional sanctions; and Tencent bans live streaming of Rockets’ and 76ers’ NBA games.

We assess the threats and developments that impact organisations in the week ahead.

THE SITUATION NOW

There was a continuation of low-level pro-democracy protests that ushered in the new year, with the sole activist ‘David’ organising and carrying out all of them. David kept within his normal pattern of activity which mainly comprises of short-term (<1 hour) appearances at prominent locations such as police stations and shopping malls, where he holds up signage and may read a copy of the pro-democracy newspaper the Apple Daily. These are non-threatening activities, posing very limited risk of disruption to local businesses and mainly pedestrian traffic. Passers-by, however, may come under greater scrutiny and a heightened risk of arrest by observing police, including uniformed and plain-clothed.

David continues to be the symbolic face of the pro-democracy movement, and as long as his demonstrations are not too disruptive, the police seem to tolerate their activities. David’s protests have also taken place against the backdrop of recent mass arrests of pro-democracy activists and politicians. See details of David’s activities in ‘Protest Chronology 1-7 January’ section.

The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) launched another protest campaign aimed at advocacy for political prisoners. As the government has banned large public gatherings under the national security law (NSL) and coronavirus-related restrictions, the CHRF have been using a truck with a raised platform with activists sloganeering through loudspeakers. One ‘drive-by’ protest took place at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre in New Kowloon on Friday (1 January).

Recently arrested opposition political figures who participated in the primaries for the 2020 Legislative Council elections, 6 January 2021/Hong Kong Free Press

Recently arrested opposition political figures who participated in the primaries for the 2020 Legislative Council elections, 6 January 2021/Hong Kong Free Press

On Tuesday (5 January), Hong Kong police reportedly demanded Apple Daily media company to provide information of reporters who applied to obtain public vehicle licence plate records from the Transport Department for their assignments. Apple Daily has so far not given the requested information to the police.

The police request for information about its journalists is connected to a documentary featured in an RTHK investigative television programme called ‘7.21 Who Owns the Truth’, which was broadcast in November 2020. The documentary revealed new information about the alleged attackers, some of whom have connections to politically influential rural committees that support the Chinese government. An RTHK producer for the documentary, identified as Choy Yuk-ling, was arrested on 3 November for allegedly making false statements during her research for information on licence plate registrations. The police are now looking for the Apple Daily journalist who allegedly worked with Choy in writing the report. This development is concerning as it potentially underscores the Hong Kong government’s efforts to clamp down on media freedoms, particularly if the outcome results in an arrest driven by strong political influences rather than the rule of law. For media persons, including domestic and foreign, this development also sends a stark signal of the increased risk of government scrutiny and possible detention in light of Beijing’s continually growing influence in the territory.

On Wednesday (6 January), the Hong Kong police arrested 53 pro-democracy politicians and activists during the early morning in a coordinated operation involving hundreds of officers. Those detained, including some the territory’s most prominent opposition politicians and activists as well as US lawyer John Clancey, who was engaged in human rights advocacy, were accused of seeking to ‘overthrow’ the local administration and held under China’s imposed NSL. The specific charges refer to an unofficial ‘primary’ vote held to select opposition candidates ahead of Legislative Council elections postponed in 2020 in the aftermath of widespread protests.


American human rights lawyer, John Clancy, escorted from his office by the police in Hong Kong, 6 January 2021/Getty Images

The arrests were the most dramatic example to date of Beijing’s efforts to quell any form of dissent in Hong Kong that challenges the legitimacy of China’s ruling communist party or its proxies in the territory. All those detained were engaged in peaceful, and in Western democratic political terms, legitimate opposition and their arrests are certain to impact on China’s relations with many Western nations. The arrests occurred barely a week after China and the European Union concluded in principle a key investment accord widely seen to advantage Beijing, and two weeks before the next US president is sworn into office. The arrest of a US national will focus attention in Washington on the issue beyond theoretical opposition to China’s actions, while European opponents of the putative investment deal are likely to use the arrest of politicians to challenge the accord. Hong Kong’s role as an international finance and trade facilitator now largely rests on how the local judiciary adjudicates on the NSL charges and Beijing’s response to their verdict. As of Friday (8 January), the authorities had released 51 of the arrested, including the Clancey. Those still remanded in custody include Joshua Wong, Tam Tak-chi and ex-Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai. The former two were already in custody prior to the 6 January arrest operations.

Geopolitics and the local implications

Chinese streaming firm Tencent halted all live broadcasts of games by the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers since the start of the season, which began on 22 December. The stoppage is reportedly in response to 76ers’ President Daryl Morey’s past comments about the situation in Hong Kong. Morey in October 2019 expressed support for pro-democracy activists in a tweet when he was the general manager of the Houston Rockets franchise. His comments created a rift between the NBA and the Chinese government. Tencent also stopped live streaming of Rockets’ games. State broadcaster CCTV, which holds exclusive TV rights, has also not broadcast any Rockets’ games for a year. Tencent has, however, provided live updates to games via its text-messaging services.

For the NBA, the Chinese market is one of the most lucrative, generating around USD500 million per year, and NBA China –  a separate business of the NBA was valued at approximately USD5 billion. It is estimated that the financial impact from Morey’s tweet has cost the NBA around USD400-500 million. Even Tencent has a lucrative arrangement with the NBA valued at around USD1.5 billion. Losses incurred from the latest non-broadcast of Rockets’ and 76ers’ games are unknown at this time. This development highlights the significant reputational, financial and political risks that companies may face in Hong Kong and China when staff publicly comment on political issues deemed highly sensitive by the Chinese government. Companies and organisations are advised to design corporate communications policies comprising of measures to raise awareness among staff on the potential risk exposures from publicly commenting on sensitive issues, including on social media. 

In a statement released late on Monday (4 January), the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) reversed its planned delisting of three Chinese telecoms firms announced on 31 December. The NYSE said that it would no longer delist China Mobile Ltd, China Telecom Corp Ltd and China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd following further consultation with relevant regulatory authorities.

The NYSE had planned to delist the companies over their suspected ties to China’s military, in line with an executive order issued by President Donald Trump prohibiting US investments in such businesses. The full reasoning for the rapid U-turn has not been announced, although possible explanations include the NYSE initially misinterpreting Trump’s executive order or, more plausibly, geopolitical developments or concessions from Beijing leading US authorities to pursue a less confrontational stance towards Chinese securities. Organisations with interests in Sino-US trade and investment relations should monitor updates and assess how evolving bilateral ties between Washington and Beijing, particularly under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, affect operations and strategy.

An increasing number of foreign countries and regional blocs have indicated they are prepared to take action against Hong Kong and China following the arrest of more than 50 opposition politicians and activists on Wednesday. On Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington could impose further sanctions against Hong Kong while expressing anger at the detention of a US national, who has subsequently been released without charge. In addition, legislators European Union (EU) member states are now questioning the validity of a major investment deal recently provisionally agreed with China, while the UK, Canada, and Australia have all condemned the arrests, adding to existing tensions between these countries and China. Local media report the remaining detainees will be released on Thursday on bail despite being arrested under China’s NSL that stipulates that bail should rarely be offered in such cases; China has yet to respond to this development.

Reaction to the arrests is likely to intensify as China and its proxies in Hong Kong are unlikely to retract the NSL charges The US, in particular, can be expected to adopt an increasingly hard line against China under the Biden administration, not least because Beijing’s conduct offers a useful external distraction from Washington’s manifest domestic political problems. Few US allies are likely to contest the new Washington government’s actions, and China’s foreign relations will reflect the hardening in attitudes towards its policies among key investors and markets. The near- to medium-term outlook for foreign companies operating in or dependent on China now appears to be volatile and potentially disruptive in terms of security of staff, ease of operations and reputational risk.

Operational implications from COVID-19

On 4 January, the Department of Health said there were more than 50 new confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. There were no reports indicating any foreign cases. Most new cases have been confined to public housing estates. The government has responded to the resurgence in cases by re-imposing a wide ranging of restrictions intended to enforce social distancing. These measures will be in place until 20 January.

All arrivals entering the territory from countries other than China will have to spend a mandatory 21-day quarantine period in a designated hotel, which unconfirmed reports indicate may be increased to 28 days if the number of imported infections from the COVID-19 variants identified in the UK and South Africa continue to spread. 

On 5 December, the Centre for Health Protection (CHR) announced that there were 32 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, including one categorised as an imported case. Four new cases were linked to a cluster at Princess Margaret Hospital. One other case was of a nurse who contracted the virus whilst working at a private clinic that has two branches: one at the European Asian Bank Building in Mong Kok district, Kowloon, and the other at Homantin Plaza in Ho Man Tin, Kowloon. It is uncertain where and when she contracted the disease.

The authorities are advising patients of the Dr Kong Tai Yuen clinics to get tested as soon as possible. The CHR also recorded four new cases of the UK COVID-19 mutation, with three Hong Kong citizens who recently returned from the UK and one from France. This brings the total of cases of the UK variant to 13. Meanwhile, the CHR has only registered two cases of the South African COVID-19 variant.

On 7 January, the government announced that it will establish a COVID-19 pandemic control centre in Kai Tek, Kowloon Bay, in order to boost its contact-tracing efforts. Case numbers continue to gradually decline but more efforts are needed to accelerate the rate of detection and monitoring. The CHR is still appealing to the public to practice social distancing, to wear face masks and to avoid non-essential gatherings.

All travellers arriving in the territory from countries other than China will have to spend a mandatory 21-day quarantine period in a designated hotel, which may be increased to 28 days if the number of imported infections from the COVID-19 variants identified the UK and South Africa continue to spread.

THE WEEK AHEAD

January began with David leading street-level protests on par with trending levels. While his activities carry a significant amount of symbolic importance and the Hong Kong police clearly tolerate them, there is an incidental risk of arrest for nearby passers-by, especially if they appear willing to engage and participate with David. He appears very undeterred by the pervasive threat of arrest under the NSL, even despite the recent mass arrest of prominent politicians and pro-democracy activists. The current monitoring cycle (8-14 January) is likely to continue with David appearing at shopping malls and police stations for protests.

Companies should take note of efforts by pro-democracy activists’ imminent launch of a boycott campaign, which will be announced on 10 January. They intend to provide a list of companies every 30 minutes with links to webpages and social media accounts. Activists and supporters will then be encouraged to leave protest messages on these pages and encourage other people to join the boycotts. Companies should closely monitor these developments and shore up cyber-security protocols to minimise the risk of attacks. Corporate public relations or strategic marketing teams should review  crisis communications plan to ensure they are fit for purpose.Geopolitically, tensions remain high between the Beijing and Hong Kong governments and the US, including its allies. The likelihood of further strain with Washington is particularly high as the administration of President Trump enters its final days. He may seek to distract the American public’s attention from domestic affairs with further attacks and possibly more sanctions on Beijing and Hong Kong. This will create a greater sense of unease within the American and foreign business communities in Hong Kong, especially in light of the arrest of a US citizen.

The COVID-19 situation appears to be in a sustained period of contraction as case numbers decline. There is potential for another wave especially if mutant strains from the UK and South Africa transmit within the local ecosystem faster than the rate of detection and containment. Tighter restrictions will be dictated on deviations upwards of case numbers in the coming week.

See details of upcoming protests below.

UPCOMING PROTESTS 8 – 14 January

Sunday 10 January

2030-2245: Pro-democracy activists are calling for mass boycotts of select businesses and will announce the targets on social media platforms.

PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 1 – 7 January

Monday 4 January

1330: David appeared at the Central Police Station, Central district, Hong Kong Island, to appeal for the release of an activist who was remanded in custody for violation COVID-19 health restrictions.

1430: David held a silent protest and read a copy of the Apple Daily at the IFC Atrium, Central district, Hong Kong Island.

1900: David appeared at Maritime Square shopping centre, Tsing Yi Island for a protest where he read a copy of the Apple Daily. He was there to protest a ban on buying food at restaurants after 1800 local time.

Tuesday 5 January

1030: David held a protest at Citygate, Tung Chung, Lantau Island, called ‘Having Breakfast with You in Tung Chung’.

1230: David appeared at Hysan Place, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong Island, for a ‘Lunch with You’ protest where he also read a copy of the Apple Daily.

Thursday 7 January

1000: The lone pro-democracy activist, David, appeared outside the Mong Kong Police Station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, to protest the detention of fellow activist, Ventus Wing Hong Lau, who was arrested on Wednesday (6 January) during a mass police operation.

1020: David appeared outside the Western Police Station, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong Island, to protest the detention of Tiffany Ka Wai Yuen, who was arrested during a mass sting operation against Hong Kong Democratic supporters and pro-democracy activists.

1145: David appeared outside the Hong Kong Police Headquarters, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island, to deliver a petition calling for a fair investigation into those activists who were arrested on 6 January.

1230: David appeared at the IFC Atrium mall, Central district, Hong Kong Island to protest the detention of activists who were arrested on 6 January.