SVA Update Number 4 - Hong Kong Protests – Threat Assessment – 17 July 2019 - 1900hrs

Intense protests on Saturday 13 and Sunday 14 July 2019 in Sheung Shui and Sha Tin in the New Territories underlined how the situation in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate.

Worse, the announcement of many events and demonstrations to follow suggests that protests may intensify over the coming weeks.

What happened

The two protests outside Hong Kong’s centre marked a change in demonstrators’ tactics, with smaller, more dispersed rallies departing from a prior focus on large scale mobilisation in Admiralty and Central, Hong Kong.

These two demonstrations also finished in violence. The end of the protest in Sha Tin was especially turbulent, with the Hong Kong Police fighting demonstrators hand-to-hand inside a contained space at the New Town Plaza mall.

That violence owed much to aggressive actions by a small group of hard-core agitators, harboured within the broader movement.

These actions thus supported perceptions of a divergence between a peaceful pro-democracy movement, and a much more aggressive “resistance” of hard core activists with a violent agenda.

Police tactics

Some commentators have queried police tactics in dealing with the changing circumstances, and the more violent agitators amongst the protesters.

It seems the government may have called on police to refrain from using CS smoke grenades and projectiles, and from relying on the standard internal security (“IS”) tactics and equipment used for crowd dispersal. Any such decision probably stems from political pressure.

However, the Government’s desire not to inflame matters has ironically had the opposite effect, by prompting head-to-head clashes between protesters and police, who responded with batons and shields, and only pepper spray. Injuries were inevitable in such a situation.

The outlook

The public order situation will probably worsen in the coming weeks. Polarisation within Hong Kong society and intense acrimony between protesters and police are deepening.

The protests are settling into a pattern of peaceful demonstration culminating in deliberately orchestrated violence, before a lull in preparation for the next “battle”.

So far, the government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has shown little inclination to ease tensions, “shelving” but not formally withdrawing a controversial extradition law.

The government seems to be betting that the agitators will commit extreme acts of violence, thereby discrediting themselves with the public, and justifying a crackdown. Fringe violence could thus undermine the movement’s successes to date.

The government’s flaccid response means, though, that a single-issue protest has come to incorporate other grievances, such as nativist feeling, freedom of the media, and demands for universal suffrage; such a multiplicity of causes defies easy resolution.

Moreover, a busy calendar of demonstrations ahead heralds a “summer of discontent”; and protesting in locales such as Mongkok or Yau Ma Tei only adds to the threat of violence, given the population density, and the presence of triad societies – who may act as agitators for either side, or simply take actions to protect their own interests.

Feeling the strain

Handling such widespread protests will put pressure on the police. Already the grinding attrition is wearing down officers.

The Junior Police Officers’ Association has made clear that frontline staff feel abandoned by the government, and has decried their pillorying in the press. These officers find themselves in an invidious position, representing the only Hong Kong government department directly facing the public.

More worrying is that a prolonged campaign of violent protests makes more likely a serious clash or, in the worst case, a breach of Police discipline. With luck, though, cooler heads will prevail.

How to respond

Morale is crucial, if the Police are to “hold the line”. Officers must know that the government will not “thrown them under a bus”, should they take decisive action. The Lam administration lacks credibility in this respect.

The Police should set out clear and robust (but fair) rules of engagement, so as to ensure the safety of genuine demonstrators, and to marginalise and divide agitators. Any failure to tackle violence and make appropriate arrests will sap officers’ morale, and embolden agitators to engage in further violence.

Such rules of engagement must make clear that violent demonstrators coming within a certain distance of key buildings, or endangering life, will face firm action to disperse them, making use of all the escalating IS methodologies, including CS smoke, projectiles, and the rest.

Of course, such a robust approach is not an attractive option, but it is preferable to hand-to-hand fighting with batons, which always results in serious injuries.

Moreover, such measures are becoming necessary to ensure that Hong Kong does not descend into a state whereby it is perceived as “ungovernable” by the mainland authorities – and hence deserving of direct intervention by People’s Republic of China (“PRC”) forces.

The situation has not yet reached that threshold, notwithstanding its challenges. Even so, the Police must adopt a tougher posture toward the smaller group of agitators, if they are to contain matters.

Threats to business

This deteriorating situation poses rising risks to businesses in Hong Kong. The most obvious threat relates to disruption to normal activity.

More worrying is the prospect of escalation, with violence worsening after each “battle”. Rallies in areas traditionally associated with triad societies only compound this threat.

Of further note is that demonstrators are moving into malls, such as Pacific Place in Admiralty, or the New Town Plaza in Sha Tin. Many malls sit immediately above, or adjacent to, the railway stations used by demonstrators to attend demonstrations; they thus pose a unique security environment. The risk, however, is that innocent bystanders find themselves caught up in such a confrontation, and are hurt.

The local political climate poses other challenges. An outcry after the owner of the New Town Plaza, Sun Hung Kai Properties, allegedly invited police into the mall, and criticism of fast food chain Yoshinoya for social media posts, highlight reputational and commercial risks.

Pressure from Beijing is also growing. The Japanese beverage Pokari Sweat and German tissue maker Tempo have both faced condemnation in mainland Chinese media, after reports of their ceasing to advertise with a pro-Beijing TV station.

Given the mainland Chinese perception that foreign forces are behind the unrest, such criticism is liable to become increasingly shrill over the summer. Indeed, calls for boycotts may follow.

What to do

In line with the escalating situation, SVA recommends that all companies likely to be affected should again carefully evaluate their risk profiles, and monitor developments closely – especially those around the pre-announced demonstration areas.

In the immediate term, planners should examine the following:

  • Safety and security of staff, and their families;
  • Protection of plant and property;
  • Possible denial of access to business premises as a consequence of demonstrations;
  • Business disruption – reaction and priorities;
  • Making plans for offsite operations for key assets, if necessary;
  • Evaluation of security plans at business events, shows and meetings, especially those around shopping malls, and major government buildings and exhibition halls;
  • Developing first aid capabilities – such as capabilities for dealing with CS smoke affecting staff, or its introduction into building air-conditioned systems.

These measures should take account of the rising volatility, and, in particular, of the fact that violence is escalating, and will likely spread beyond the city centre and Admiralty.

Similarly, businesses must take account of political shifts. Various factions are starting to demand that businesses take sides, or to attribute political motives to decisions or statements that may be apolitical.

Close monitoring of social media accounts is especially important in this context, as a rogue, or unwary, employee can cause significant harm to a business’ interests.

Of course, different businesses have widely varying requirements, and thus all plans need to be practically tailored to meet specific needs.

SVA stands ready to assist companies as may be necessary.