Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency legislation on October 4 to ban the use of masks during all protests in the city, a month after she formally announced the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill.
The significant escalation in protest tactics and forceful dispersal methods has resulted in a deterioration in all-around security in Hong Kong, while the protest lobby will continue to pressure the government to address all five of their demands.
The discovery of an IED in Mong Kok on October 13 for the first time during the ongoing wave of protests is highly notable. Despite its isolated nature, the incident is likely to be used by authorities to further justify a more heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, including mass arrests, over the coming weeks.
The anti-government campaign is liable to impact the upcoming District Council polls, slated for November, with election-related violence anticipated in the coming weeks.
Travel to Hong Kong can continue while adhering to security precautions regarding civil unrest, and avoiding the vicinity of all protests.
Hong Kong authorities officially withdrew the contentious extradition bill, via a statement by Secretary for Security John Lee at the Legislative Council (LegCo) on October 23. The move follows Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s announcement of the bill’s complete withdrawal on September 4 after it sparked anti-government protests since March. CE Lam also announced a ban on the use of masks in all protests by invoking emergency legislation on October 4.
Notable recent developments have included a significant uptick in protest tactics as well as police dispersal methods in the months of September and October. The most recent was a low-level IED explosion in Mong Kok during a protest in the area, during which demonstrators also threw at least 20 petrol bombs at the Mong Kok Police Station. Further, October 1 and 4 saw two separate instances of young protesters being shot by police personnel.
The US House of Representatives passed three pieces of legislation in support of Hong Kong on October 15. These include the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which seeks an annual review of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the city’s special treatment as a separate trade entity if it becomes law. The second measure, the Protect Hong Kong Act, seeks to ban the commercial exports of military and crowd-control equipment that the police could use against protesters. The third measure passed by the House is a non-binding resolution recognizing Hong Kong’s relationship with the US, supporting the residents’ right to vote, and condemning China’s alleged interference in their domestic affairs.
Assessments and Forecast
Escalation in violence, increased confrontations despite bill’s withdrawal signals entrenched position of protesters
Recent tactics adopted by both the security forces and anti-government protesters, mainly consisting of Hong Kong’s youth, represent notable escalations. The first instances of protesters being shot by police forces have thus far aggravated radical groups and have sustained their use of more violent means of protests in recent weeks. FORECAST: The continuation of demonstrations despite CE Lam’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the bill shows how the movement has evolved into a larger anti-government campaign, and as such, shows no signs of quelling in the near term.
The introduction of the anti-mask law by emergency legislation served to further antagonize protesters against CE Lam. It also raised concerns about further restrictions on freedoms and the potential implementation of a full emergency in the city. While this latter measure is less likely in the immediate term, sustained protest violence may be used to justify the usage of increased emergency measures in the long term, as was witnessed with the anti-mask regulation. Calls for CE Lam’s resignation are expected to continue gaining traction in the near term, evidenced by pan-democrats’ heckling of CE Lam during her policy address on October 16.
Vandalism, arson, and the use of petrol bombs can be expected with continued frequency by radical anti-government groups. The slightly diminished participation in protests may be attributed to various reasons. This may include the disengagement of more moderate groups who have now been placated by the withdrawal of the extradition bill or those driven away by the increase in violent protest tactics. Despite these factors, local solidarity with the anti-government campaign as a whole appears unlikely to abate, signaled by moderate groups dubbing their radical counterparts as “the braves” for continuing the movement. Specific incidents of escalation, such as the alleged police excesses or the use of live rounds to disperse protesters, may prompt a sudden spike in turnouts at rallies, especially on the weekends.
Authorities likely expected the extradition bill’s complete withdrawal to placate the protest movement. Instead, the withdrawal emboldened participating groups to continue pushing for their four remaining demands, likely due to perceptions that the withdrawal of the bill was a result of the pressure they put on the government. This continuation of protests has likely informed the increased intensity of forceful dispersal measures witnessed in the aftermath of the bill’s withdrawal. FORECAST: Police are liable to continue with this approach, using tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds, with the latent risk of isolated incidents involving live ammunition usage in the near term. The increasing frequency of MTR cancellations ahead of protests appear to have also created perceptions among protesters that the MTR corporation is siding with the police by restricting protesters’ movement. As such, MTR stations are likely to continue to remain hotspots, especially for acts of arson and vandalism.
The discovery of an IED in Mong Kok on October 13 for the first time during the ongoing wave of protests is highly notable, although it appears to have been crudely constructed and caused limited damage with no injuries. FORECAST: Nevertheless, the incident is likely to be used by authorities to further justify a more heavy-handed crackdown on protesters, including mass arrests, over the coming weeks. An increase in the deployment of riot police is also expected city-wide. However, it is unlikely that IED attacks will become commonplace in Hong Kong, as the aforementioned instance appears to have been an isolated event.
Anti-government campaign liable to inform trends in upcoming election
The protesters’ recent targeting of Chinese-owned banks and businesses in the city further highlights heightened anti-Beijing sentiments, which has largely energized the clashes between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing individuals in Hong Kong. FORECAST: This may further deepen social polarization within the city, especially ahead of the November District Council elections. Pro-democracy lawmakers may attempt to capitalize on current sentiments to gain visibility for their campaigns, potentially by staging election rallies during or close to predetermined anti-government events.
Voter turnout and support for these groups may see an uptick as smaller pro-democracy parties draw support by association with the protests. Turnouts in the election are liable to be high, based on the record number of citizens enrolled to vote. Incidents of election-related violence are also likely, potentially targeting pro-government lawmakers and their offices. This risk pertains to pan-democrat candidates as well, evidenced thus far in the October 16 attack on CHRF convenor and Lek Yuen constituency candidate Jimmy Sham.
FORECAST: Precedence suggests that the government will enforce stringent electoral rules to exclude pan-democrat candidates. This was witnessed in the barring of pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong, per an October 29 announcement. Authorities may also attempt to disqualify elected pro-democracy representatives following the polls. Such moves will exacerbate anti-government sentiment, potentially spurring a new wave of rallies or violence in the aftermath of the elections. Another trigger that could instigate such unrest is the cancellation of polls in specific areas due to security concerns. This is likely as such a move would be perceived as a rejection of protesters’ demand for universal suffrage.
FORECAST: Though the District Council polls are not expected to significantly impact the shaping of the Legislative Council, they will inform representation in the committee that selects the city’s chief executive. This is significant considering protesters’ calls for incumbent CE Lam’s resignation. While such a result is less likely at present, pan-democrats will seek to maximize poll participation in order to ultimately bolster their committee representation. In this light, Beijing will monitor the elections closely and may push to escalate the local government’s crackdown on pan-democrat candidates or their camp as a whole in the months that follow. This is especially likely in preparation for the Legislative Council elections set to occur in 2020.
China may use punitive trade measures to discourage international support, risk of direct military intervention still low
The month of October saw China exerting its influence on US-based businesses that were perceived as supporting the protest movement in Hong Kong. The developments underscore China’s economic influence on US-based businesses by virtue of its large market access, especially those perceived to take an anti-China stance. This is bolstered by multiple Chinese businesses dropping sponsorship deals with a large US-based sporting franchise over perceived support for the protests.
FORECAST: The US House of Representatives’ votes in favor of several pieces of legislation to support Hong Kong on October 15 are likely to embolden pro-democracy demonstrators, especially as the votes coincided with a mass protest in Hong Kong in support of the legislation. The passage of these bills may be raised at ongoing trade talks between the US and China, as Beijing condemns Washington for interfering in affairs it views as domestic. CE Lam’s recent statements that the administration will not hesitate to take Beijing’s assistance in quelling protests is likely a form of signaling; as such, direct intervention by the Chinese government or security forces still remains less likely in the immediate term. However, the level of security cooperation between Beijing’s security establishment and the Hong Kong police is expected to increase as protests sustain for the foreseeable future.
Travel to Hong Kong can continue while adhering to security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime, and protests.
Those operating or residing in Hong Kong are advised to avoid all travel near protests and further maintain heightened vigilance throughout the city due to the potential for continued demonstrations and the unrest. This may include the use of teargas and rubber bullets by police, incendiary objects such as petrol bombs, or the throwing of bricks and projectiles by protesters.
Avoid the vicinity of police stations, checkpoints, or other security installations as they are being increasingly targeted with arson attacks or vandalism in the latest wave of protests. This is particularly likely after multiple arrests occur at protest rallies.
Maintain particular vigilance around government buildings on Hong Kong Island, which are often used as protest sites, such as the LegCo Building, Central Government Complex, Hong Kong Police Headquarters, and Chief Executive’s Office.
Minimize nonessential travel to sensitive areas where the propensity for violence is greater at present. These primarily include Tin Shui Wai, Ma On Shan, Sha Tin, and Sheung Shui in the New Territories; Tsim Sha Tsui, Sham Shui Po, and the West Kowloon Train Station in Kowloon; and North Point in the Eastern District of Hong Kong Island.
Allot for disruptions if taking the MRT service given that authorities are known to close off specific lines to prevent protesters’ movements, especially during multiple simultaneous demonstrations across the city.
Avoid carrying any sensitive material either on electronic devices or clothing that puts forward controversial political opinions, particularly anti-Beijing stances, when crossing over by land due to the heightened security checks.
MAX Security has strong on-ground capabilities for executive protection and facilitating business travel to Hong Kong. For contingency plans and on-ground operational support, contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434.