The current climate in Hong Kong was already tenuous, with the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak being portrayed as a purely Chinese creation, borne out of the poor hygiene practices and unhealthy diets in the People’s Republic. Regardless of the accuracy of this portrayal, the virus arrives at a time of intense sinophobia. Fears about the virus are therefore at risk of fueling retaliatory attacks against the mainland and all groups deemed to be ‘pro-Beijing’. Additionally, Hong Kong’s populace is still conscious of the 2003 SARS outbreak and how a lack of transparency from China facilitated the spread of the disease. These factors are likely to galvanize the pro-democracy movement into further action.
Preliminary data supports this assertion. Already, quarantine zones have been firebombed and bomb threats have been called in at hospitals. Social media forums such as r/HongKong on Reddit are abuzz with renewed anti-Beijing chatter and anti-epidemic strikes are being convened across multiple MTR stations. Last week, trade unions representing over 20,000 hospital workers and railway workers threatened to go on strike unless Carrie Lam’s administration sealed the border with China. A multitude of new unions, such as the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, have surfaced to publicly lambast the current government and stir public dissent. Civil Rights Groups have also joined in this battle for public opinion on the side of the pro-democracy movement.
On 28 January, decisions were announced to close several border crossings which slashed the number of inbound travelers substantially. These actions included halting the express rail and Guangzhou train services, and reducing the number of flights to the mainland.
Then over the weekend, Lam announced the temporarily closure of all land border crossings with the mainland — apart from Shenzhen Bay and the bridge to Macau and Zhuhai — beginning at midnight on 4 February. This means a total of 10 of Hong Kong’s 13 border crossings with mainland China will now be closed. The airport will stay open, but ferries will not operate between Hong Kong and the mainland.
Rather than diverting public attention away from the protest movement, the disease outbreak appears to be becoming another platform for protesters to launch criticisms of Lam’s government and mobilize additional protest activities. This trend is set to continue, and monitoring efforts across OSINT sources indicates that the movement is actively strategizing and preparing retaliatory mobilizations.
Public health facilities near the China-Hong Kong land border should be avoided where possible. As public opinion worsens and sinophobia intensifies, firms should be increasingly aware of their designations as either “blue” or “yellow” businesses and firms should also pay close attention to their social media presence. Any discovered association between local businesses and the People’s Republic is likely to greatly increase the severity of the threat faced. Already, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley have already found their IPO applications for Chinese companies rejected at the Hong Kong stock exchange as it is speculated that pro-democracy bankers are seeking to punish businesses dubbed “pro-regime”. Given the possibility of violence and financial repercussions, businesses will continue to carefully manage public perceptions to minimize risk.
Thiyaghessan Poongundranar is a political risk analyst at Polysentry — a technology company providing risk managers, executives, security teams, and operations centers with personalized threat intelligence. Polysentry leverages your locations, facilities, and/or supply chain data to provide in real-time situational intelligence in any country globally. Get a free demo of Polysentry’s security platform today and build a complete customized security monitoring dashboard for your company.