TRAVELER ALERT: HONG KONG STREET DEMONSTRATIONS, Updated on October 11, 2019
Is it safe to travel to Hong Kong in the current circumstances given the street protests? That is the question many potential visitors to Hong Kong are now asking.
The quick answer is yes, but closely monitor and be aware of the daily situation, exercise common sense, avoid potential hot spots and be prepared to adjust your plans on short notice. For a detailed breakdown, please read on.
BACKGROUND: Beginning in June 2019, there have been a continuous chain of street demonstrations and organized protests initially aimed at the Hong Kong government’s attempt to pass a draft extradition law which would have allowed Hong Kong citizens as well as local foreign residents and visitors to be extradited to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in instances involving certain specified crimes allegedly committed in China. The controversial law, as well as the way that it was being expedited for quick passage coupled with the negative reputation of the PRC criminal justice system initially led to two massive street marches involving millions of participants consisting of people from all walks of life, including the elderly, families together with children, students etc.
The official marches (i.e., those with permits issued by the police) have been peaceful. However, following the official marches, there has been a hardened group of radicalized protestors who have continued activities into the evening hours, targeting government offices, police stations, MTR stations and other politically symbolic targets such as the Mainland China Liaison Office and certain Mainland commercial establishments. These targets initially were primarily on Hong Kong Island, however they subsequently spread to other areas in Kowloon and the New Territories (principally nearby police stations). This has now become a regular weekend event and both sides have gradually rachetted up their tactics in terms of the use of force. Both sides have accused the other of unnecessary force. This past week began relatively quiet and it was hoped that all sides decided to dial back the use of force in confrontations. But the cycle of violent late night confrontations returned Saturday and Sunday evenings. What is clear is there can be no assurance that further disruptions will not occur in the future.
In addition, earlier in August there were demonstrations held at the airport which led to the airport being closed down for two days and a great deal of travel chaos. On one evening there occurred some violent confrontations between some of the demonstrators and the police. These events were extensively covered by the international media. The Airport Authority subsequently obtained a court injunction limiting the areas where demonstrations can be legally held at the airport and of critical importance, has restricted access to the terminals to passengers holding valid travel documents (i.e. tickets and boarding passes). The airport has been operating normally following these developments. Some of the organizers of the demonstrations at the airport have apologized for certain behaviors and the inconvenience caused. There have not been any disruptions at the airport since August.
So far, to my knowledge, there have been no demonstrations held at either of the two cruise ship terminals.
Initially, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, said the process of passing the controversial extradition bill into law was suspended indefinitely and for all practical purposes the proposed bill was "dead". The protest organizers retorted that the characterization as "dead" was not a legal term of art and demanded that the bill be officially withdrawn. In mid-September the bill was finally withdrawn. However, the protestors had already moved on to other issues. They are also demanding, inter alia, amnesty for arrested protestors, an independent judicial inquiry of the police use of force these past several months and universal suffrage.
With the complete backing of the Chinese Communist Party on the Mainland (some would say in accordance with orders), so far the Hong Kong government has stubbornly refused to concede any of these other demands. This has led to a chain of demonstrations these (primarily on weekends, but also on late weekdays) and an expanded pool of active protestors expressing frustration over a raft of festering socio-economic issues which have been largely ignored by the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong elite establishment since the formal handover in 1997.
The Chief Executive has made promises to be more attentive to the concerns of ordinary people. However, these have been poorly received and are being characterized as hollow promises by a "lame duck" leader. Now certain elements have begun using the “independence” word which set off alarm bells in Beijing. This is not surprising since Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is was returned to the PRC in 1997, subject to the much revered “one country two systems” principle.
The bottom line is that absent a dramatic break in the current political stalemate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to formulate a scenario bringing the street demonstrations to a quick conclusion. Particularly given the intractability of the CCP controlled government on the Mainland which is lurking behind the scenes and the hardened position of the protest movement.
Notwithstanding all of the above, the vast majority of Hong Kong people are doing their best to take these events in stride and continue their lives normally as best they can. And for the most part, they are able to do so, even though the local economy has now been seriously impacted. Many neighborhoods of Hong Kong have managed to avoid interruption by protest disturbances.
It is important to note that this is not a movement targeting foreigners or tourists. No tourists have been attacked or injured to date. Visitors are not in physical danger unless they happen into the middle of a violent confrontation, which will not happen if one follows the advice provided herein.
It is also noteworthy that the US Consulate in Hong Kong has elevated its current travel advisory for Hong Kong which, as of this writing is, “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.” I defer to them completely on these matters. I know they are in constant touch with local law enforcement agencies and have their own security team assessing the situation on a daily basis. The safest level is Level 1. At Level 2, Hong Kong is now at the same level as other global cities such as London and Paris.
Hong Kong has always been re-known as an extremely safe city. Accordingly, there are no hardened criminals or gangs just waiting for opportunities to take advantage of the situation to engage in looting, muggings or other petty street crimes. Although there have been violent incidents at the protest venues, Hong Kong is nowhere near a general breakdown of civil order or some kind of terrorist campaign targeting innocent civilians. Ironically, the last time Hong Kong experienced anything near that was during the communsit/leftist riots in 1967.
I know many out there have been alarmed by the sensational scenes splashed all over the world media. I will only say that all sides involved in this turmoil have their own agenda to promote and they are all very adept at propagating or propagandizing same particularly with the the force of social media.
I do not mean to downplay the seriousness of these events and developments. As a frequent global travel I always put a premium on safety and objective advice. I assume you do too.
Recommended reading: 9 Questions about the Hong Kong protests you were too embarrassed to ask
What does the above mean for you as a prospective traveler to Hong Kong?
The following is my own opinion. It is not a professional opinion given as a law enforcement or security specialist. However, among the places I have lived my life were New York City (Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan) in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Chicago in the 70s and Washington D.C. North East in the 70s). As you can imagine I have seen many interesting things on the street. I once witnessed a full out street melee between a faction of the now defunct Japanese Red Army and two truckloads of Japanese gangsters or yakuza in downtown Osaka. I have observed all kinds of police behavior including the NYPD and Chicago Police Departments. I also spent my primary career as a lawyer advising corporate types on various risks in the emerging markets in Europe and Asia.
My bottom line at this time is as follows. As long as you are aware of developments, exercise common sense, avoid whatever protest hot spots there might be on any given day and proactively prepare for contingencies even if remote, it is perfectly safe to visit Hong Kong and you will be able to enjoy your trip more or less as normal.
I have led private tours throughout the period of the protests, including a safe 8 hour city tour on China’s National Day, October 1! I actually arrived at the airport during the protest there in August and was able to exit safely without feeling threatened. This advice applies to single travelers as well as families. On any given day, you may experience inconvenience resulting from transportation detours or delays caused by a protest, but you are not going to find yourself inadvertently standing in the middle of a full out riot or some other breakdown of law and order if you follow the advice given here. Moreover, somewhat incongruously, the protests seem to have settled into a predictable time frame starting on Friday evenings and through the weekends. Even during the weekends, one can ascertain when and where trouble might occur.
Note: For those of you wondering, it is absolutely illegal to own firearms in Hong Kong.
If for some reason you wind up at or near a protest venue, just ask anyone on the street what is the best way for you to get past and everyone, including the protesters, will be happy to offer friendly directions. If there is a protest near your hotel, then plan on an early return before the evening starts. If anything happens nearby it will very likely blow over overnight so stay in for the evening.
I follow my own advice. As a photographer you can well imagine how tempting it is to put on my bike helmet and go photograph the protests. Spectacular images of intense stand offs between the police and the protestors abound. However, I have absolutely no interest in doing so. I do not want to be seen as a foreign provocateur in the news and I do not want to put myself in a potentially dangerous situation. I am paying particular attention to advisories and instructions from the police. I know I am 100% safe following this strategy. My clients appreciate it as well.
So, when you arrive in Hong Kong, just like you check the weather, ask your hotel concierge or tour guide is there any area I should avoid today? You can also check the consulate website which publishes a list of scheduled protest venues. Usually the answer is everything is fine today. But there will be some days, primarily on weekends, when the answer will be please avoid X or Y because there is a protest rally scheduled there today.
Luckily, Hong Kong is a very big city with plenty of fantastic things to do spread over great distance (Hong Kong is approximately 1,100 square kilometers and includes 262 islands). All you have to do is exercise common sense and plan accordingly. As an analogy, when Occupy Wall Street camped out in lower Manhattan six years ago, was it a good idea to go downtown at 8PM in the evening? Not!
Now I know there are travelers who will prefer to avoid any venue with even the slightest potential for trouble of some kind. I respect that and for those travelers who are avoiding some other potential hot spots like Paris, for example, I would say maybe you should take a pass here if you are concerned. There are others who may have a taste for excitement and who may want to observe the protests first hand. My recommendation would be to stick to the events that have been approved by the police and I would advise maximum caution in doing so.
I have been able to carry on my regular routine without a major hitch to date and for the most part so has everyone else living in Hong Kong. Recently, there was a major demonstration that ran through my neighborhood without incident.
I have lived the entirety of my life having avoided the experience of inhaling tear gas and I have zero intention of starting here and now!
The following are some useful general safety tips for travel to areas of civil unrest, that can be found on the World Nomads website:
How to Survive a Protest
Plan your day with an early start. On weekends, in particular, plan on wrapping up your day by 3PM- 4PM and thereafter playing it by ear.
Keep abreast of current news or contact your embassy and request regular updates if you are in a volatile area;
Do not wear black or white t-shirts on days when demonstrations are expected;
If you hear that a demonstration is taking place, avoid the area or stay in your accommodation until you are sure that it's safe to go out;
Before you go out, establish where the demonstration has taken place, and if possible avoid the area. Take along and consult a map so that you will know where you are at all times;
If you come across a demonstration, don't become inquisitive, just leave the area and find another route to your intended destination;
Should you need to go to an area which experiences a lot of demonstrations, try not to go alone. Where possible take someone with you and operate as a team looking out for each other. Keep close and maintain visual contact;
Avoid any place where police or security force action is in progress. Under no circumstances do you want to find yourself between the police and the demonstrators!
Fully abide by all Police announcements and directives.
How to Survive a Protest DISTURBANCE
In the unlikely event you find yourself caught up in a protest or riot keep to the edge of the crowd where it is safest. Try not to be identified as one of the demonstrators by keeping well away from the leaders/agitators;
At the first opportunity break away and seek refuge in a nearby building, or find a suitable doorway or alley and stay there until the crowd passes;
When leaving the fringe of the demonstration just walk away – don't run as this will draw attention to you;
In the event that you are arrested by the police, do not resist. Go along peacefully and contact your embassy as well as your travel insurance provider
to help you resolve your predicament;
If you are caught up in the crowd, stay clear of glass shop fronts, stay on your feet and move with the flow;
If you are swept along in the crush, create a space for yourself by grasping your wrists and bracing your elbows away from your sides; bend over slightly – this should allow you breathing room;
If pushed to the ground, try to get against a wall and roll yourself into a tight ball and cover your head with your hands until the crowd passes;
Remember to keep calm – the crowd should sweep past in a short space of time.
SAFE AND SECURE PRIVATE TOURS
I have not suspended tour activity and continue to offer safe and secure Hong Kong private tours as I always do. Moreover, I feel a strong personal obligation to look after the well being of my clients both on and off tour. Accordingly:
I am keeping all of my clients who are looking at arrival in the near future fully up to speed on all relevant developments.
I strongly recommend starting your day early, particularly on weekends.
I have further undertaken to assist by providing current information and advice on how to minimize potential interruption during their stay, in these extraordinary circumstances and to be available on call by phone and WhatsApp during the full duration of their stay.
I am in a position to offer advice on safe hotel venues and travel to and from Hong Kong.
If you have a tour scheduled on a particular day that events on the ground render inadvisable, you can rest assured that I will advise you accordingly. Furthermore, I will not charge any cancellation fees in protest related circumstances which I consider to be an absolute force majeure.
In the unlikely event you find yourself in an emergency situation and need my help, all you have to do is call me!
I will be posting regular updates to this dispatch as warranted by events and developments.
It may not be for the jittery, but frankly, this is not altogether a bad time to visit Hong Kong because the excess crowds of Mainland day visitors and other Asia sourced tourists who have recently afflicted many mainstream tourist sights have been significantly curtailed. Moreover, all the hotels are evidently offering attractive packages (some at half price) on account of diminished booking activity.
Looking at the big picture, this is a pivotal moment in the history of this former colonial outpost which is now a leading global financial center. As you can imagine, I have spent a great deal of time studying the history and social development of China and Hong Kong. I was posted in Central Europe immediately following the demise of the Soviet Union and now I am living in Hong Kong during the period that it is being re-absorbed by the PRC. I have my own personal observations and insights on these matters which I find particularly fascinating when considered in grand historical scheme of our times. These I will be happy to share with you on tour! All of my clients can count on leaving Hong Kong with a very well informed objective understanding of what is currently happening in Hong Kong and the Greater China Region and where it may all lead.
Hope to see you soon on the Streets of Hong Kong or Macau!
End of Dispatch
I am an American of Asian descent from NYC who has spent many years living and working throughout Asia, most recently based from a very old Chinese neighborhood called To Kwa Wan in Old Kowloon for 15 years. I am also a retired international lawyer with strong Asian roots and I have reinvented myself as a professional artist, photographer and street savvy Hong Kong premium tour guide.
I specialize in premium private walking tours with an emphasis on street culture, local history and, for those so inclined, all levels of photography. My private tours are personalized to match your unique interests. Inasmuch as I am a professional photographer, all of the points of interest covered in my repertoire have a very strong visual appeal coupled with a well informed narrative adding dimension and context to your images.
Whether you are into simple travel snapshots, social media image sharing or serious landscape, architectural or urban street photography or just enjoying the Hong Kong experience, I am in a position to maximize your time spent in Hong Kong and its surrounding locales to the fullest.
Hence, my mission can be encapsulated as follows: To provide all of my clients with an entertaining, deeply informative and street savvy premium travel experience ultimately leading to cherished memories, a portfolio of stunning on-tour photographs, an urge for further investigation and a strong desire to navigate your way back to this wonderfully engaging city.
My premium walking tours are ideal for acclimating and orienting first time visitors to Hong Kong as well as for returning visitors eager for a new experience.
I accept engagements up to one year in advance or, subject to my availability, last minute and/or same day. Families with children are always welcome and children 16 years and under are free of charge. Special needs clients are also welcome.
You can book a tour or send me an inquiry now by going to my Contact/Booking Page.