As part of this year’s review of ECA’s Location Ratings scores, by which we make recommendations for location allowances, we have made a thorough reassessment of the situation in Hong Kong, given the ongoing socio-political upheavals taking place there. Points have increased in several categories – internal isolation, news and media, personal security, and socio-political tensions – and the changes are explained below. (For more background on the factors ECA analysts take into consideration when assessing scores for location allowances, please refer to our related Mobility Basics post.)
ECA’s unique scoring methodology is based on a comparison of circumstances in both home and host locations, so while our reassessment has produced a higher total score for Hong Kong, this has not always led to an increase in the corresponding location allowance recommended, depending on the relevant home location.
However, assignees should be assured that the impact of the current situation has been thoroughly assessed and reflected in the increase in the overall score allocated. Indeed, the scale of the increase for Hong Kong is unprecedented for a location which is typically considered among the less challenging in our rankings.
As part of this category, ECA evaluates the quality and availability of transportation and communications infrastructure in the host location. Hong Kong’s excellent public transport system has suffered during recent months. Since June, the MTR subway system has been subject to sporadic station closures. However, disruption has increased since early October and the network has not been able to run a full service on any day since. Stations and lines (whether in whole or in part) are now regularly subject to closure, often at short notice. In addition, street-level protests have caused diversions and cancellations of bus services, while road closures and the narrowness of many of Hong Kong’s streets have resulted in major traffic jams. Therefore, we have revised our scoring to reflect the impact of all of this on expatriates and their families. Speaking from personal experience as a commuter in Hong Kong, my day now starts with checking public transport apps on my phone to see if my usual route to work remains open and, if not, assessing the viability of alternative routes. I also check the news throughout the day to see how I can get home, a process which may continue through the weekend if I’m planning family activities, sometimes based on a risk assessment of whether transport is likely to be operational for the entire day.
News and media
Recent events have exposed the vulnerability of Hong Kong’s cyberspace to interference from the authorities. One example is a popular mobile phone app used by protestors to organise their movements being subject to monitoring and disruption, with some users arrested for their online activity. Therefore, the news and media score now recognises that there is a little more internet censorship. Furthermore, protests in all forms of media have highlighted a hitherto unseen lack of impartiality within media on both sides of the political spectrum.
Rallies and protests have placed a considerable strain on police resources in the territory with frontline officers having been diverted towards managing demonstrations. As a result, crimes such as car theft and burglary have increased, the latter by approximately 50% between June and September 2019 compared with the same period last year, likely owing to the reduced capacity of police to prevent, investigate and prosecute such crimes. In spite of this, data shows that crime rates in Hong Kong remain low compared with other major global cities and this continues to be reflected in our revised score for the category.
Unsurprisingly, this is the category where our score has increased the most. The new score recognises that an unstable situation exists, with significant political tensions present and even the potential for military activity. Protests commenced in June in response to the government’s planned extradition bill and have been continuing for almost half a year since. Among a number of factors, initial government intransigence led to the expansion of the movement and protestors’ demands have grown to such an extent that a long-term resolution appears impossible at present. It is important to note that the current tensions are not a one-off event. They represent the continuation of a rise in socio-political tensions that commenced in 2014 with the Occupy Central movement and have continued in subsequent years through sporadic protests, disputed local elections and rising anger about freedom of expression being curtailed. These tensions were evident in the refusal of the government in 2018 to renew the working visa of a journalist who had hosted a debate featuring a key representative of Hong Kong’s pro-independence movement.
A key feature of ECA’s location ratings is that they reflect not only events that have already taken place but also the potential for future escalation, so uplifts in scores are likely to persist for some time. Local elections are due at the end of November which are likely to act as a catalyst for further tensions. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s student population has recently taken charge of driving the movement and has resorted to increasingly disruptive and violent actions. Student protestors have set up roadblocks in the city hampering the ability of expatriates to travel freely, a factor which led us to increase the score relating to freedom of movement. Most universities have taken the decision to suspend classes for the remainder of the semester, thereby adding to the numbers of students protesting. There has also been widespread criticism of the tactics used by Hong Kong police in managing protests, raising anger levels and harming its previous reputation as one of Asia’s best law enforcement bodies.
The apparent unwillingness of the government to negotiate with the protest movement has led many to conclude that the only way to advance their cause is through increasingly radical tactics, no doubt encouraged by the fact that the anti-extradition bill was only withdrawn after actions became violent – the peaceful protests in June 2019 when approximately two million people marched in opposition to the bill had little effect. Furthermore, the legacy of the allegedly heavy-handed treatment of Occupy’s leaders in 2014 is that the successor movement of 2019 has remained largely leaderless, meaning that no-one appears to be in a position to negotiate on its behalf, nor to direct protests towards any sort of orderly conclusion. Therefore, the recent chaotic scenes in Hong Kong may well continue.
Mass civil disobedience in other countries (such as Thailand and Chile in recent times) has often resulted in the military stepping in to support police in maintaining order. Hong Kong, as part of China, does not have its own military, relying instead on Beijing for defence. The option is open to the Hong Kong government to request military support to keep order, secure areas such as vital transport hubs, and enable people to go about their daily lives as normal. However, while this may represent a short-term solution to the current problems, it would risk further polarising the population and creating deeper socio-political tensions in the long-term, especially if the military’s actions were to result in deaths. With no obvious steps being taken by either side as yet towards mediation, or even engagement, and the risk of possible involvement of armed forces growing – even if they come as ‘peace-keepers’ – a long-term solution feels far off, which explains the unprecedented upward revision we have made to our Location Ratings score for Hong Kong.
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