Travel Risk Analysis: National Day Protests in Hong Kong 2019 – Summary, Impact and Future Risk Mitigation

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  • Hong Kong has witnessed widespread unrest as increasingly large numbers of pro-democracy demonstrators have taken streets since 1 October when China held its National Day celebrations. A number of violent actions by police, including the shooting of protesters, have caused outrage amid renewed calls for an investigation into police conduct.
  • The events set a new precedent for escalatory action that is likely to lead to further protests, casualties and retaliatory measures over the coming weeks.

  • A number of risk mitigation measures are outlined below along with a mapping resource which can be used to ascertain how operations and travel itineraries may be impacted by future unrest.

The background and context to the National Day Protests 2019

On Tuesday, 1 October, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) held its 70th annual National Day celebrations. Each year, the event involves a series of national sporting, music and cultural events which are organised to take place throughout mainland China and the Special Administrative Territories (SARs) as government officials address the general population and pay homage to the founders of the PRC. While the nation’s attention is primarily focused on a series of military parades in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, other smaller ceremonies are typically organised by the Legislative Councils of Hong Kong and Macau.

This year, National Day acted as a symbolic flashpoint for anti-government protests in Hong Kong as activists took to the streets to challenge the authority of the Administration and repeat calls for the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, democratic reforms and an investigation into alleged police misconduct.

What’s happened? A summary of the protests and locations impacted

The protests began on Tuesday morning as large groups of demonstrators took to the streets in the northern Causeway Bay and Central area of Hong Kong Island, in defiance of a city-wide ban on unsanctioned public gatherings. Up until midday, the central areas remained relatively empty and devoid of pedestrians and vehicles as businesses and shops closed for the national holiday, while several MTR stations shut down in anticipation of disruption and vandalism. That morning the police announced via Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) that they had arrested a group of individuals, including two students, following a series of night-time raids, and that they were being held on suspicion of conspiracy to produce offensive weapons including petrol bombs and crude explosives. The announcement was met with condemnation on social media and fuelled calls throughout the day for the release of detained protesters.

Joshua Wong, who has become the de facto online spokesperson for the pro-democracy movement, issued a statement in the early hours of the morning, urging Hong Kongers to attend demonstrations to pressure foreign governments and organisations to reconsider their relationship with China and “fight against authoritarianism”.

The first major organised protest of the day was held in the Causeway Bay area which attracted thousands of attendants, most of whom were dressed in black and wore masks to disguise their identity. As the day progressed a large number of concurrent protests were held across the city, many of which were spontaneous and disorganised. The following locations served as primary focal points for these gatherings:

  • Southorn Playground in Wan Chai District
  • The Lockhart Road flyover in Wan Chai
  • Wong Tai Sin Square
  • Sha Tsui Playground in Tsuen Wan
  • The British Consulate Building, Supreme Court Road, Admiralty District
  • Sogo Department Store, East Point Road, Causeway Bay
  • Lung Cheung Road, Wong Tai Sin
  • Castle Peak/Tuen Mun, Ting Kau
  • Connaught Road West, Sai Wan
  • Des Voeux Road, Central District
  • Chater Garden, Central District
  • HKSAR Government Complex and Tamar park, Central District
  • Main Street/Tai Chung Kiu Road, Shatin
  • Fortress Hill Road, North Point
  • Prince Edward Station, Mongkok

Amongst the numerous protests and widespread scenes of violent clashes between demonstrators and police, two key events drew the attention of commentators and the media. The first of these incidents was the closure and evacuation of the Legislative Council building by the SAR Secretariat, after protesters breached the building’s security perimeter. A detachment of riot police was quickly deployed to the scene to prevent a repeat of events in July when protesters ransacked the main chamber and vandalised Chinese state symbols. The second incident occurred at around 1900 local time (1100 UTC) when a young protester named Tsang Chi-kin was shot in the chest with live ammunition at close range by a police officer. The individual was admitted to Queen Elizabeth hospital, where he was treated. He is expected to make a full recovery.

The day’s events, which have been collectively referred to as the ‘National Day of Grief’ by users on the LIHKG social media platform, attracted tens of thousands of protesters. A total of 104 demonstrators and members of the public were admitted to hospital with injuries, whilst 180 were arrested, most of whom remain in custody. Overall, 96 people, who are mainly students, are due to appear in court charged with rioting. According to police officials, 25 officers were also injured due to the use of petrol bombs, corrosive liquid and blunt instruments by rioters.

Daily protests have continued in Hong Kong since this time, fuelled by angry opposition to the actions of the Hong Kong police, the prosecution of protesters and a move by the Administration to ban face masks designed to conceal the identity of rioters. These gatherings have also frequently devolved into rioting and nightly attacks on Chinses-owned businesses, public buildings and MTR stations, whilst large-scale rallies have continued in Causeway Bay, Central, Admiralty and Mong Kok. Amid the escalating violence, police have continued to use water cannon, tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades, whilst reportedly confiscating masks warn by demonstrators. Authorities in charge of overseeing MTR operations have also been forced to suspend the entire network at certain times in a bid to minimise the potential for vandalism, arson and attacks on staff.

Outlook and impact on the risk and security climate

Further large-scale, destabilising protest activity is highly likely over the coming weeks. It is anticipated that protests will be widespread across the territory and will take the form of both peaceful gatherings and violent riots which will continue to have a heavily detrimental impact on both business continuity and tourism in the city.

The events on 1 October have set a new precedent for escalatory action that is likely to lead to further high-profile casualties and retaliatory measures. The events also engendered a proliferation in violence as police increased their use of tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, and water cannon, whilst protesters employed corrosive fluid, bricks and petrol bombs against the security forces. The imposition of measures by the Administration that are viewed as draconian – such potential curfews and the ban on face masks – are likely to exacerbate entrenchment and reduce the potential for the two parties to find a workable solution to the crisis.

Risk mitigation advice for business and travellers

Protest organisers, who typically use the LIHKG forums to plan events, have increasingly declined to apply for official police approval prior to holding demonstrations and rallies. This increases the risk of clashes. Movement restrictions due to barricades and roadblocks are likely in the event of future unrest and may disrupt overland travel in the vicinity. Detachments of riot police are typically quick to deploy tear gas, sponge grenades and water cannon to break up crowds, especially around sensitive locations such as the Central Government Complex. This increases the risk of incidental exposure to violence and injury for those in the immediate area. The increased use of live rounds by the Hong Kong police represents a change in the security dynamic. Although the use of live ammunition is intended only as a measure of warning, its use significantly increases the risk of fatal injury to protesters and passers-by. Violent attacks by rioters on pedestrians who have are suspected of being undercover police officers or Beijing sympathisers have also been reported, further elevating this risk.

Travellers

  • Travellers should avoid all protests and large gatherings, as these present a dynamic and unpredictable security environment.
  • During planned protests, travellers should allow additional travel time and avoid MTR stations that are close to protest areas.
  • Travellers should use multiple sources of information to keep abreast of developing protests.
  • They should also routinely monitor announcements on the Hong Kong police website and its twitter account.
  • Travellers should comply with any curfews, closures or movement restrictions which are introduced over the coming weeks.

Businesses

  • 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 the impact of airport closure, the 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.