HONG KONG PROTEST MONITOR 7 August 2020

7 August 2020

THE SITUATION NOW 

Over the recent monitoring cycle (31 July - 6 August), there were very limited significant public street-level protests, continuing on with a trend of subdued activities after the national security law (NSL) was implemented on 30 June. The resurgence of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases and the related restrictions on outdoor mobility have also prevented pro-democracy activists from holding large-scale demonstrations.

There was no significant protest activity over the weekend of 1-2 August, and this pause has continued until at least Friday (7 August), when activists are calling on supporters to launch flash-mob style protests on 8 August to commemorate the death of Chow Tsz-lok on 8 November 2019, a further significant date in the pro-democracy calendar. Chow is believed to be the first casualty linked to pro-democracy demonstrations. Though a police investigation concluded that the police could not have pushed Chow off the Sheung Tak car park in Tseung Kwan O from which he fell to his death, the claim alleging police involvement gained significant traction among activists. However, under the current strictures, activists have been calling for smaller-scale and highly-mobile gatherings. These gatherings are unlikely to be very disruptive and more aimed at propagating pro-democracy messages. 

Legal proceedings against pro-democracy activists have ramped up following the imposition of the NSL. Prosecutors at West Kowloon Court on Wednesday (5 August) convicted pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting of inciting demonstrators to besiege the Wan Chai police headquarters for 15 hours during an unauthorised protest that occurred on 21 June 2019. Chow in July pleaded guilty to participation in the demonstration and the incitement. Joshua Wong, Chow’s colleague from the now dissolved activist party Demosisto, was also charged. Chow’s sentencing was adjourned to 1 December, the last day of a six-day trial for Wong and another defendant, Ivan Lam Long-yin, over the same matter. Wong and Lam have pleaded not guilty to their charges and stand trial on 23 November. Despite the legal proceedings they face, Chow and Wong have both said they will continue their pro-democracy activism. 

Wong on Friday (7 August) filed a court challenge against the barring of his participation in the 2019 district council elections. If Wong's challenge is accepted, it would open up the possiblity of further legal challenges to the disqualification of candidates in the now-postponed Legislative Council elections. 

Additionally, Hong Kong police on Thursday (6 August) arrested and charged 24 pro-democracy advocates for their respective roles in organising or attending a vigil in June held to commemorate the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The 2020 peaceful vigil, which has been held in Hong Kong each year since 1989, was banned by the police ostensibly due to regulations linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of other people also attended the banned vigil and numerous other illegal demonstrations during months of protests in 2019. The latest arrests do not appear to be directly linked to China’s imposed national security law (NSL) that came into force after the June vigil.

Joshua Wong handing in his nomination for the Legislative Council elections, 20 July 2020/Shutterstock

Overall, this recent downturn in street-level protest activities mostly attributed to the pandemic and the NSL is likely to continue over the next monitoring cycle. However, China over the weekend (1-2 August) began to boost Hong Kong's COVID-19 testing and tracking facilities, including through the introduction of experts from the mainland to establish temporary labs. Pro-democracy activists are likely to respond to allegations that COVID-19 testing is being used to collect residents' DNA for monitoring purposes with smaller-scale protests or more flash-mob rallies, including violent ones. Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday announced territory-wide, voluntary, free COVID-19 testing to be implemented in two weeks.

Geopolitics and the local implications

Geopolitical tensions continue to increase between the Hong Kong and Beijing governments and a loose ‘coalition’ of mainly Western governments over China’s increasing assertiveness and control over the territory. A cycle of reprisal measures at the diplomatic level is spilling over into the operational risk environment for major multinational firms.

The German government on Friday (31 July) suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong in response to the Hong Kong government’s decision to postpone Legislative Council (LegCo) elections by a year and disqualifying 12 pro-democracy opposition candidates. The move follows similar measures taken by Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK over China’s imposition of the new nationals security law in the territory.

France on Monday (3 August) announced it was suspending its ratification of an extradition treaty with Hong Kong over China’s imposition of the new national security law. Also on Monday, Beijing said it was suspending its extradition treaty with New Zealand in retaliation to Wellington’s suspension of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. New Zealand’s suspension came in addition to other measures taken as part of the country’s review of its ties to Hong Kong. 

Twelve UK lawmakers from the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hong Kong on Tuesday (4 August) in an 80-page report on the treatment of aid workers during protests in the territory urged the UK government to sanction Hong Kong’s police commissioner, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and others, over alleged excessive police force against pro-democracy demonstrators. The lawmakers also requested the UK to create an independent investigatory body to probe the situation in the territory through international organisations such as the United Nations. The APPG issued its report after a five-month inquiry. Pro-democracy activists are encouraging the promotion of the report while the COVID-19 situation prevents them from taking to the streets. A Hong Kong government spokesperson on Wednesday (5 August) rejected the report and said it has no 'actual evidence' and is 'biased,' accusing the UK of meddling in China and Hong Kong's domestic affairs. The Hong Kong police force also denied the report's allegations of wrongdoing.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday promised to protect Hong Kong pro-democracy activists that have escaped the territory. He also condemned China over Chinese state media’s announcement on Friday (31 July) that Hong Kong police had ordered the arrests of six activists – including well-known activist Nathan Law, who recently escaped to the UK – living abroad on alleged violations of the new national security law. 

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Wednesday after a meeting with Japanese counterpart Motegi Toshimitsu said that the UK and Japan stand ‘side by side’ in supporting freedom for Hong Kong, among other matters.  

Pro-Beijing activists on Wednesday (5 August) demonstrated outside the British Consulate General in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. The activists accused the UK of meddling in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs in response to Hong Kong’s decision to postpone the LegCo elections. 

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong on Thursday (6 August) said that journalists’ visas were being employed ‘as a weapon in international disputes’ amid reports that foreign reporters are facing ‘highly unusual’ visa delays. The US and China have engaged in tit-for-tat measures in an ongoing media row between the two countries; Chinese state media Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin on Tueday (4 August) warned that China will retaliate if the US expels Chinese journalists, including by measures against US reporters in Hong Kong. 

Pro-Beijing activists on Thursday protested outside the German Consulate General in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. They accused Germany of meddling in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs in response to Germany’s decision to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong on 31 July over the postponement of the LegCo elections and barring of 12 pro-democracy candidates in the elections. 

The United States Department of the Treasury on Friday (7 August) imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and 10 other senior officials from mainland China and Hong Kong. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that sanctions were targeted at those infringing on Hong Kong's autonomy. 

Operational implications from COVID-19

Hong Kong’s health authorities reported at least 87 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, below the 95 infections recorded on Thursday and 100-plus cases identified over a six-day period last week. 

A new focus of concern is the growing number of infections detected among the territory’s 400,000 or so migrant domestic helpers, overwhelmingly women recruited from such countries as the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The authorities also continue to assess the threat from Hong Kong’s numerous so-called ‘wet markets’ where fresh meat, fish and other produce are sold. Infection clusters have been identified in wet markets in Kowloon’s Hung Hom and To Kwa Wan districts, potentially repeating transmission patterns identified in China’s capital Beijing and Wuhan, considered the epicentre of the pandemic. 

Well over 1,000 locally transmitted cases, including around 650 with no known source, have been recorded in what the authorities characterise as the ‘third wave’ of infections. Few options remain for the government to prevent the spread of the virus other than to continue current social distancing regulations and limiting such activities as eating out, measures public health specialists believe may have to remain in place for weeks. While some specialists advocate an overnight curfew, the government is likely to retain this option as a final resort in the event the virus breaks out into the wider community from the present clusters based largely on care homes for the elderly, food processing businesses and specific geographical districts. 

A group of residents and workers in Tai Po district on Tuesday (4 August) protested near Tai Ping Industrial Centre over the establishment of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) testing facilities in the area. They were met by police who threatened the crowd with violations of current assembly rules if they did not disperse. The development comes after the territory on Sunday (2 August) took in Chinese government experts that are establishing temporary labs to significantly enhance Hong Kong’s COVID-19 tracking capabilities. Six district councilors on Wednesday (5 August) protested outside the Metropark Hotel in Kowloon where COVID-19 experts sent by China are residing, in opposition to their presence, as well as the local government’s hiring of Chinese-backed firms to carry out COVID-19 testing in the territory. Further demonstrations outside of COVID-19 testing facilities and related staff’s places of residence are also likely in the short term.  


THE WEEK AHEAD 

In addition to flash-mob protests in the upcoming monitoring cycle, there are still plenty of incentives for pro-democracy activists to take to the streets. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday announced territory-wide, voluntary, free COVID-19 testing to be implemented in two weeks. Pro-democracy activists are likely to respond to allegations that COVID-19 testing is being used to collect residents' DNA for monitoring purposes with smaller-scale protests or more flash-mob rallies, including violent ones. 

Germany’s suspension of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong is almost certain to be met with reprisal measures by Beijing. Reprisals may include heightened scrutiny over German firms in China, as well as retaliations impacting operations in Hong Kong, including boycotts of German goods and services, demonstrations by pro-Beijing groups, targeting of personalities of interest, increased cyber-attacks, and delayed cross-border trade, among other hostile actions. German firms with interests in China should assess the impact of very likely diplomatic and commercial retaliation by Beijing and factor this into their strategic and operational planning.   

France’s suspension of the ratification of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong is almost certain to be met with reprisal measures by Beijing. French firms with interests in China should assess the impact of very likely diplomatic and commercial retaliation by Beijing and factor this into their strategic and operational planning. Germany and France's stances towards Hong Kong indicate the movement by the European Union (EU) towards a more unified response on the matter, as both countries occupy central roles in the EU.  

The UK Foreign Secretary’s statement alongside Japan is likely to invoke the ire of Beijing and heighten the risk of increased scrutiny over UK and Japanese firms in China, as well as retaliations impacting operations in Hong Kong. UK and Japanese firms with interests in China should assess the impact of very likely diplomatic and commercial retaliation by Beijing and factor this into their strategic and operational planning. 

As more foreign governments officially join the international ‘coalition’ against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, their respective diplomatic missions, companies and citizens will likely be under heightened threat of retaliation. 

The latest arrests, which do not appear to be directly linked to China’s imposed national security law (NSL) that came into force after the June vigil, will serve as a test of the local judiciary’s continuing independence. To date the legal process regarding those accused of various violent and non-violent offences relating to the protests have been generally balanced, and foreign companies are likely to carefully assess whether the territory’s laws are becoming ‘politicised’ in line with those in China. While many local and foreign companies have overtly welcomed the seeming stability that has followed the introduction of the NSL and Beijing’s direct intervention into Hong Kong’s legal and legislative systems, they remain concerned over their potential impact on commercial law and the heightened reputational risk of operating in the territory. Further, the latest arrests are certain to be criticised by many of Hong Kong's trading partners in Western and other democracies, adding to the territory’s already volatile relationship with these countries. 

In terms of the local dynamics, COVID-19 outbreaks and the government’s strictures will likely continue to suppress large-scale planned protest activities. However, flash-mob protests are possible over the coming week.

See details of upcoming protests below. 


UPCOMING PROTESTS 

Saturday 8 August

Activists called on supporters to launch flash-mob style protests on 8 August to commemorate the death of Chow Tsz-lok on 8 November 2019, a further significant date in the pro-democracy calendar. 

At this juncture, there are no other planned protests for the upcoming week largely due to the resurgence of COVID-19 and intensified security laws. Spontaneous gatherings triggered by domestic and international developments cannot be ruled out. 


PROTEST CHRONOLOGY 31 July - 6 August 

Friday 31 July 

Twenty pro-democracy activists laid flowers at the Prince Edward MTR station, Mong Kok district, Kowloon, to commemorate the Prince Edward station attack, which occurred on 31 August 2019. Police arrested five of the activists that had assembled. Activists had allegedly chanted pro-democracy slogans. 

Tuesday 4 August 

A group of residents and workers in Tai Po district protested near Tai Ping Industrial Centre over the establishment of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) testing facilities in the area. They were met by police who threatened the crowd with violations of current assembly rules if they did not disperse. The development comes after the territory on Sunday (2 August) took in Chinese government experts that are establishing temporary labs to significantly enhance Hong Kong’s COVID-19 tracking capabilities. 

Wednesday 5 August 

Pro-Beijing activists demonstrated outside the British Consulate General in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. The activists accused the UK of meddling in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs in response to Hong Kong’s decision to postpone the Legislative Council elections. 

Six district councilors protested outside the Metropark Hotel in Kowloon where COVID-19 experts sent by China are residing, in opposition to their presence, as well as the local government’s hiring of Chinese-backed firms to carry out COVID-19 testing in the territory. 

Thursday 6 August 

Pro-Beijing activists protested outside the German Consulate General in Admiralty, Hong Kong Island. They accused Germany of meddling in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs in response to Germany’s decision to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong on 31 July over the postponement of the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections and barring of 12 pro-democracy candidates in the elections.