Reality Check: Hong Kong

Wednesday night was a relatively quiet night in Hong Kong but many businesses - especially those perceived to be China-linked or pro-China/HK Govt - and the mass transit MTR are still struggling to repair damage from a violent long weekend. 

And again today (Thursday), the MTR will shut down the entire rail system (except for the Airport Express) at 21:00 (14:00 GMT), ostensibly to allow for repairs However, many people see the early shutdowns as a de facto curfew. The beleaguered MTR has been criticized by China as being a transportation method for protesters, while the protesters accuse the public transit provider of being in lockstep with the government and the police.

Tourism continues to suffer immensely. During the seven-day  “golden week” holiday from Oct 1, the number of visitors from mainland China was around 672,000 – down over 55% from figure recorded over same period last year. This is a huge drop considering that mainlanders account for more than 50 per cent of all visitors to Hong Kong.

In my discussions with long-time locals and expatriates, no one could say they see an end in sight to the four months of protests. The government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam refuses to hold meaningful dialogue with the anti-government movement. Local chambers of commerce are having a tough time: since they rely on membership dues and members events, the widespread disruptions and uncertainty threatens their survival. Many events have had to be cancelled or moved to other cities such as Singapore.

There is also growing concern about violent fringe elements in the protest movement: increasing reports of ordinary citizens being stopped randomly at make-shift road blocks by masked individuals and being forced to produce identification. Some have reportedly been attacked, and have even had their mobile phones checked.

On social media, one explanation for the sudden calm on the streets is concern about projecting a moral high ground while the much-anticipated Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act heads for passage on Capitol Hill. The bill, which would require the U.S. government to assess Hong Kong’s level of political autonomy annually to determine whether it should continue to have a special trade status, is inching its way closer to a vote in both houses.

(However the calm may be short lived: tomorrow Legco opens for committee meetings and there are reports that protesters may attempt to block entrances and cause other disruptions)

In the past week, the government took the controversial decision to use the colonial-era emergency ordinance and introduce an anti-mask law. That led to even further violent protests and it is now feared that, having reached for the measures, the next step to quell protests will be internet restrictions (the movement relies heavily on chat apps and social media to mobilize protesters) and possibly even localized curfews. Placing restrictions on the Internet - an advisor to Lam has said the move is still on the table - is seen as a draconian step that could deal a near-fatal blow to this global business center.

Next Wednesday will be a key date as the Legislative Council is set to re-open for the first time since protesters trashed the chambers. Lam is expected to deliver a keynote policy speech, reportedly focusing on social issues such as housing and the environment. The embattled leader is reportedly considering delivering the address from the safety of Government House or via pre-recorded video.

Also before the end of the month the long-delayed annual plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party is set to take place in Beijing - with the Hong Kong crisis high on the agenda.