Travel Risk Analysis: The Hong Kong Demonstrations Summer 2019

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  • Hong Kong demonstrations are now entering its tenth week of unrest as protesters rally against the central Chinese government’s efforts to assert more control over the semi-autonomous city
  • The Hong Kong administration is holding firm in its dismissal of the protesters as ‘radicals’ who are not representative of the general population and continues to back a police crackdown
  • This development has a had a negative impact on the security environment in the territory, and has caused inner-city transport disruption, increased risk of exposure to incidental violence for visitors, and the temporary closure of the city’s airport
  • It is likely that the anti-establishment movement will gradually lose momentum in the face of political defiance, facilitating a return to the status quo in a superficial sense. 
  • If the Executive requested support from the mainland it would lead to a violent military crackdown and escalation, but on current trajectory it is an unlikely scenario. The chance of a peaceful resolution to the crisis through political concessions is also deemed to be low probability

What are the Hong Kong demonstrations about and what does it mean for business travellers and businesses? 

Last weekend saw renewed unrest on the streets of Hong Kong as pro-democracy activists defied bans and rallied in the centre of the city for the tenth consecutive week against the central Chinese government’s efforts to assert more control over the semi-autonomous city. The demonstrators have routinely clashed with security forces during large rallies, with some using makeshift weapons such as fireworks, battering rams and crude projectiles to attack officers. Security forces have responded by deploying rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon to break up gatherings. Many protesters have accused the police of using excessive force to control the crowds. Weekend rallies that have received prior approval by the city authorities have occurred largely without incident, although a number of other mobilisations have increasingly been held without permission, resulting in mass arrests. The standoff continued on Monday as thousands of demonstrators stormed the Hong Kong International Airport and paralysed operations at one of Asia’s busiest transport hubs.

The Hong Kong demonstrations, which have been ongoing since early June, have proven particularly destabilising for international businesses in the city, whilst the numbers of tourists visiting Hong Kong have fallen sharply in recent weeks as authorities struggle to quell the unrest. Although the protesters’ initial demand that a controversial extradition bill be shelved has been granted, the Hong Kong administration’s perceived lacklustre response to accusations of heavy-handedness by the police and Beijing’s increasing encroachment has served to exacerbate the crisis and has led to further demands; namely the resignation of the pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and an investigation into the use of excessive force against demonstrators by police. These demands are unlikely to ever be adopted as policy, but the administration is aware that it needs to provide some form of political compensation in order to appease pro-democracy activists. However, in practice, Lam and her administration are holding firm on their dismissal of the protesters as ‘radicals’ who are not representative of the general population and continue to back the police’s response to the mobilisations, despite widespread support for the pro-democracy movement.

China’s central government, which has exercised dominion over Hong Kong through a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement since it assumed control of the territory in 1997, wants to convey that authority in Hong Kong is still firmly in the hands of the Executive. Nonetheless, there are some indicators that Beijing could be laying the groundwork for future direct intervention as a measure of last resort in line with Hong Kong’s ‘Garrison Law’ which would permit a contingent of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to assist with security operations in the city in the event of a significant deterioration in the security environment. Over the weekend, a nationalist Chinese newspaper reported that an armoured personnel carrier and trucks had been seen in Shenzhen, a mainland city near Hong Kong. Last week, thousands of mainland police officers also gathered in the area, officially as part of security preparations for China’s 70th anniversary on 1 October, but they were reported to have participated in drills including anti-riot measures similar to those seen in Hong Kong.

However, any direct intervention by the PLA would undoubtedly lead to international condemnation and a severe backlash among the Hong Kong public. It would also mark a turning point that would damage Chinese foreign relations and undermine the city’s status as an international financial centre. Thus, under the current circumstances, Beijing has pursued a strategy of intimidating activists by backing the Hong Kong police’s heavy-handed crowd control measures, meting out harsh criminal punishments and providing covert support, such as suspected support of Triad gang violence against protesters, in addition to the use of propaganda to repress dissent. Ultimately, the government of the People’s Republic of China will continue to keep its options open.



The negative risk and security impacts so far

Since early June, the protest actions and associated violence in Hong Kong have had a significant negative impact on the security environment. The specific implications for visitors are listed below:

Inner-City Transport Disruption

Street demonstrations have led to the closure of main central thoroughfares including Harcourt Road, Carter Road, Gloucester Road, and the entire Causeway Bay area, as well as Castle Peak Road in Yuen Long and Lung Cheung Road in Wong Ta Sin. This has caused significant disruption to taxis, passenger cars and bus services. Hong Kong demonstrations have also actively delayed the departure of trains on the city’s MTR (subway network) as a tactic to cause disruption. These actions have typically taken place during morning rush hour on weekdays and have caused delays ranging from a few minutes to over an hour.

Flight Cancellations and Airport Closure 

In recent weeks, unions representing ground crew, flight attendants and pilots working for several airlines, including Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific, have instigated strike action in solidarity with the pro-democracy movement. This has led to multiple flight cancellations and knock-on delays. Demonstrations and sit-ins have also been held in the arrivals hall and other parts of the facility open to the public, which have led to safety concerns and prompted airport authorities to cancel all flights on Monday, 12 August.

Street-Level Violence 

Clashes between protesters and police have generated a risk of incidental exposure to crowd control measures and violent actions, which could lead to serious injury. The indiscriminate use of teargas and rubber bullets could affect passers-by, whilst thrown projectiles and improvised petrol bombs may hit onlookers. Instances of pro-Beijing ‘triad’ (gang) members indiscriminately attacking protesters with blunt weapons have also been reported. The risk of violence is further increased outside key symbolic locations, which have been the target of protest actions, including, but not limited to, the Admiralty District Central Government Complex, the Legislative Council (LegCo) Offices and the High Court of Hong Kong.


Future security implications: 3 scenarios 

The three scenarios listed below represent possible outcomes for this current episode of unrest over the coming weeks and months. They each include an assessment of the likelihood of occurrence, along with a brief description of the associated security implications.

Scenario 1: 
Anti-establishment movement gradually loses momentum in the face of political defiance, facilitating a return to the status quo

This is considered to be the most likely outcome, as at this juncture the administration has given no indication that it will make any further concessions beyond the removal of the controversial extradition bill. Equally, the pro-democracy movement has received limited external support from foreign powers and potential allies who are mindful of China’s importance as a trading partner and are reluctant to upset the delicate balance of regional power. Further, Hong Kong-based businesses are facing pressure to distance themselves from the protesters, and the academic semester resumes in early September which may curtail the involvement of some of the student activists. Beijing, for its part, would also be reluctant to resort  to direct military intervention as this would permanently undermine the heralded ‘one country, two systems’principle and have a significant negative impact on China’s image and market stability.

In such a scenario, the security situation in Hong Kong is unlikely to deteriorate much more from its current state, with incidental violence and transport disruption remaining the greatest risk to visitors. The environment would slowly improve over the next few months as protests die down and see reduced attendance. However, the territory’s population will remain highly sensitive to future political developments, and further outbreaks of unrest will remain likely, especially around sensitive dates such as the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October.

Scenario 2: 
Hong Kong Executive calls for PLA intervention leading to a violent military crackdown

In this second scenario, the Hong Kong Executive could issue a state of emergency in the territory, citing a complete breakdown of law and order as a justification for intervention by the PLA. The force’s Hong Kong ‘garrison’ would likely be tasked with assisting police operations in the first instance, resulting in troops being deployed on to the city’s streets to control crowds and bring an end to the protest through the use of force. Further measures, such as the introduction of curfews, movement restrictions and military detentions, are also possible. Although this strategy is legally mandated by Hong Kong’s Basic Law mini-constitution, it would end any illusion of the territory’s autonomy and lead to international condemnation. However, foreign powers like the UK (which monitors the situation in Hong Kong’s in compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration) are unlikely to intervene or take direct punitive action against China outside of minor economic and symbolic measures. On balance, this scenario is considered to be unlikely due to the PRC’s reluctance to intervene in such a direct manner.

This outcome could potentially lead to violent clashes in the short-term as protesters react angrily to the deployment of PLA personnel, leading to direct confrontations.

Scenario 3: 
Legislative Council approves significant political concessions appeasing protesters

In this scenario, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council could approve a number of measures in an attempt to satisfy the protesters and bring a peaceful end to the current situation. These may include the resignation of the current Chief Executive Carrie Lam, an external investigation into police brutality, the complete future dismissal of the extradition bill, and even the introduction of a new independent parliamentary system. Such sweeping changes would likely appease the majority of the protest movement and bring an abrupt end to the current period of unrest. However, such an outcome would depend on a process of negotiation between dissident representatives and members of the administration, which is problematic considering that at this juncture no such figures exist, and that the government of the PRC has shown no interest in engaging in dialogue. Ultimately, Beijing is concerned that doing so would set a dangerous precedent for China’s other autonomous regions. As such, on the current trajectory, this scenario is considered to be very unlikely. However, it would become slightly more feasible if this period of unrest continues in its current state and the pro-democracy movement coalesces.

Under these circumstances the security environment in Hong Kong would see a rapid improvement in the short- to medium-term, as protest activities would end once the demonstrators’ demands are met. Although some disruption may continue as a result of certain factions being unsatisfied with the concessions, their loss of wider public support would eventually precipitate a return to the status quo.



The escalation indicators for the Drum Cussac Global Operations Centre

The following triggers are being actively monitored by Drum Cussac’s in-house experts and cutting-edge technology GlobalRiskManager to assess the current potential for escalation which would further impact Hong Kong’s security environment.


Expert risk and security recommendations

For business travellers

  • Travellers should avoid all protests and large gatherings, which present a dynamic security environment.
  • During planned protests, travellers should allow additional travel time and avoid MTR (Mass Transit Railway) stations that are close to protest areas.
  • Travellers should use multiple sources of information to keep abreast of protests

For business operations in Hong Kong

  • Businesses in Hong Kong should brief staff in the days leading up to a planned protest and ensure that all employees are fully aware of any emergency evacuation procedures. Businesses should also know and understand how to contact staff in an emergency.
  • Consider a work from home policy, and moving critical assets offshore.
  • Organisations should test business resilience, including building security and emergency systems.
  • Contingency plans should include plans to mitigate airport closure, suspension or cancellation of flights, and disruption to arterial roads.

The number of entry points into premises should be minimised, CCTV should be operational and recording. Debris or any equipment that may assist entry into building should be removed from building perimeters.