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SITUATION UPDATE 15 June, 2021 Back

Situation Update - Hong Kong's 1 July Anniversary

Konrad Pialucha

Hong Kong's 1st July Anniversary

Summary

  • This year’s 1 July anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty from the UK to China comes as the city’s security environment has tightened substantially over the past two years.
  • Hong Kong’s police banned the 4 June vigil that typically takes place to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests, while on 27 May a new bill was passed reducing elected seats in the Legislative Council.
  • It should be anticipated that the Hong Kongese authorities will decline to permit the 1 July march to maintain their momentum in quashing the city’s pro-democracy movement.
  • Increasing constrains on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement reinforce tensions between the West and China.

Situation

Hong Kong’s security environment has tightened substantially over the past two years as per efforts by Beijing to push back on the city’s pro-democracy movement.

An upcoming date of significance is 1 July, which in previous years has been marked by mass marches comprised of pro-democracy activists that seek to bring attention to their cause and express opposition to China’s increasing control over the territory. The date marks the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the UK to China that took place on 1 July 1997.

Last year’s 1 July marches drew tens of thousands of demonstrators despite new national security legislation that came into force the evening prior, with the law stipulating punitive measures for those engaged in the loosely defined acts of ‘terrorism’, ‘secession’, ‘subversion’ and ‘collusion’. This coincided with restrictions on public assembly officially in place to suppress the spread of COVID-19. The measures worked to drive down participation rates in 2020 relative to 1 July protests in 2019, which saw a turnout of around half a million individuals.

A recent annual date of importance for Hong Kongese pro-democracy dissent was 4 June, coinciding with the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

This year, Hong Kong’s police banned the vigil that typically takes place in Victoria Park, thereby making it the second consecutive year that the government has done so citing COVID-19 restrictions. On 3 June, authorities warned that any gathering posed “considerable threats to the public health and lives” and said that those participating in “unauthorized assemblies” could face five years in prison. Though the authorities sealed off Victoria Park, small crowds attempted to assemble on its peripheries, with some staging one-person protests. Squads of police officers then dispersed those who had gathered just after 20:00, which was the previously scheduled time of the vigil. In stark contrast, last year tens of thousands defied the vigil’s ban that was similarly imposed by officials ostensibly to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The dates of significance for Hong Kongese dissent have come as 27 May saw Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passing an electoral reform bill. The Improving Electoral System (Consolidating Amendments) Bill 2021 expanded the Legislative Council to 90 members while simultaneously reducing the number of seats that are directly elected to 20. Under the arrangement, 30 seats are now reserved for “functional constituencies” that represent different industries while the Election Committee that also chooses Hong Kong’s leader appoints 40 representatives. Previously, 35 of the formerly 70-seat Legislative Council were directly elected by Hongkongers.

The legislation also mandates the establishment of a committee that vets all candidates for the elections and will be chosen by Beijing’s national security office and bodies presided over by Hong Kong’s chief executive. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has assured that the new vetting committee will not discriminate against people for their political views, but rather to ensure the exclusion of any “non-patriots”.

Implications

It should be anticipated that Hong Kong’s police will decline to permit the 1 July march and are likely to invoke the risks posed by COVID-19, consistent with all other major protest anniversaries since the beginning of the pandemic.

Authorities are keen to maintain their momentum in quashing the city’s pro-democracy movement, whereby any resurgence of participation from the population would signify a reversal. Should any demonstrations manifest, the most likely scenario involves pockets of protesters and sole dissenters articulating their grievances as opposed to a mass of concerted demonstrators occupying large areas of the city akin to 2019.

It should be expected that any such localised assemblies will be met with a swift coercive response by the police. Hong Kong’s authorities are also likely to utilise targeted communications blackouts to hinder the capacity of dissenters to co-ordinate physical movements and to organise virtual gatherings, consistent with previous tactics employed by Hong Kong’s government in anticipation of civil unrest. The erection of roadblocks for the control of movements is also likely, an aspect that will stifle travel and logistics on 1 July around key locations in Hong Kong, such as in proximity to the Legislative Council Complex.

Geopolitically, the increasing constraints on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement reinforce tensions between the West and China. A recurrent point of contention that has acted as an obstacle to integration involves what Western governments describe as human rights concerns associated with China’s approach to dissent in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. Beijing consistently criticises such claims, taking the position that the matters are purely internal and have no place in international affairs. Such tensions could be clearly seen following the passing of the Improving Electoral System (Consolidating Amendments) Bill 2021.

Following its ratification, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that “the Chinese government continued to undermine the democratic institutions of Hong Kong, denying Hong Kong residents the rights that the People’s Republic of China itself has guaranteed”. In response, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that “the United States does not care for Hong Kong’s democracy and the rights of its residents. Its true purpose is to interfere in Hong Kong’s politics and China’s internal affairs”.

Hong Kong is of heightened symbolic relevance due to being an international centre for finance and commerce that has long been considered a unique interface between the economic systems of the West and China. Acceptance of dissenting views forms a core aspect of liberal principles that are commensurate with the West, whereby their erosion in Hong Kong is emblematic of an accelerating global bifurcation. China’s tightened control over Hong Kong has taken place in the wider scope of Beijing’s regional expansionist ambitions, with other points of focus being the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Simultaneously, the US and its allies are keen to maintain Taiwan’s alignment with the West and also seek to project influence in the South China Sea which bears some of the world’s most lucrative shipping channels. Pressures on both sides therefore suggest a continuation of taut relations, with little space for compromise.