Today (August 16, 2019): Is it safe to visit Hong Kong?
Famed for its magnificent skyline that looks out over Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong is one of the world’s most popular places to visit, with 29 million visitors in 2018. The metropolis offers a vibrant lifestyle, friendly people, splendid harbor, loads of shopping and wide range of restaurants and cuisines. However, for the past months, Hong Kong has been rocked by large-scale protests that were sparked by a now-shelved extradition bill. The demonstrations – which have shown no sign of stopping any time soon – have evolved into a wider pro-democracy movement and have become increasingly violent, disrupting the city’s transport network and even shutting down the airport. Naturally, all of the above has travelers across the globe wondering if it’s safe to visit Hong Kong right now. Here’s what you need to know.
Are you worried about visiting Hong Kong? Leave a comment.
- Hong Kong’s unique history and status
- What are the protests in Hong Kong about?
- Is travel in the city disrupted?
- Is air travel disrupted? What if my flight is cancelled?
- What does the Hong Kong government advises to visitors?
- What do overseas governments advise to their travelers?
- How likely is a Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong’s unique history and status
Hong Kong has a history which is significantly different from other Chinese cities and which partly explains what is happening now.
It was a British colony for more than 150 years: the central part of the area – Hong Kong island – was ceded by China’s Qing Dynasty to the United Kingdom after the First Opium War in 1842. The colony expanded to the Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 after the Second Opium War and was further extended when China also leased the rest of Hong Kong – the New Territories – to the British for 99 years. Under the stability of the British rule, Hong Kong flourished as a trading port and developed into a key financial hub with the highest concentration of banking institutions in the world. During this time, Hong Kong not only benefited from British rule but also from its strategic geographical location, as it was the main access route to mainland China and also the largest trading partner in mainland China.
In the early 1980s, as the deadline for the 99-year-lease approached, the United Kingdom and the communist government in China began talks on the future of Hong Kong. The two sides reached a deal in 1984 that saw the sovereignty over Hong Kong returning to China in 1997 with the guarantee that Hong Kong could maintain its systems, freedoms, and way of life for at least 50 years according to the so called Basic Law. The latter stipulates the basic policies of China regarding the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and follows the principle of “one country, two systems”. As a result, Hong Kong remains capitalist (contrary to mainland China’s socialism), still maintains a border with China, and has its own legal system and rights, including freedom of assembly and free speech.
In 28 years’ time in 2047, the Basic Law and the principle of “one country, two systems” expires and what will happen to Hong Kong’s autonomy after that is unclear. Many inhabitants of Hong Kong are worried about their freedom and future once China takes over.
What are the protests in Hong Kong about?
The current protests started after an extradition bill was proposed by Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive Carrie Lam. If enacted, the bill would allow local authorities to detain and extradite people who are wanted in territories that Hong Kong does not have extradition agreements with, including mainland China and Taiwan. Some feared the bill would place Hong Kongers and their territory closer under China’s control, undermining the principle of “one country, two systems” and that it would take away their rights. Rights groups also feared that under this law anyone – from dissidents to business tycoons – who falls out of favor with Chinese authorities risks being sent to the mainland to face trial in a notoriously opaque judicial system.
Demonstrations against the bill began in March, steadily grew, and eventually reached gigantic dimensions in June, with millions of people peacefully marching in protest of the bill. Some of these protests were met by a heavy-handed and widely criticized police crackdown, after which investigations into police behavior and greater accountability for their actions became part of protestors’ demands. Under massive pressure, Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended the extradition bill on 15 June and declared it “dead” on 9 July. However, the protests continue(d) to grow as Lam did not say the bill would be withdrawn, fueling the perception that she is more sympathetic towards Beijing than Hong Kong. Controversy around the bill has seen Lam’s support sink to a record low.
The demonstrations have now snowballed into a wider pro-democracy movement, with most protesters calling for Carrie Lam’s resignation and some even demanding full autonomy from China amid increasing outbreaks of violence.
Is travel in the city disrupted?
It’s important to keep in mind that the demonstrations are directed against the government, and not against tourists. There have been no reports of tourists being injured in the protests. And most marches are widely advertised well in advance, making it easy for visitors to avoid them. To stay safe, you should keep an eye on local media reports to monitor which areas are affected, especially at weekends when most protests take place. If you keep clear of areas with protests then you should be able to avoid getting caught up in them.
That said, to call these demonstrations entirely peaceful is not accurate, as they are becoming more aggressive and confrontational. Occasionally, they result in violent clashes with police, who uses a variety of crowd control measures, including the deployment of tear gas. The protests and confrontations have also spilled over into neighborhoods other than those where the police have permitted marches or rallies, including some areas popular with tourists on Hong Kong Island in Kowloon. Basically, you should stay as far away from any demonstrations as possible, and if you see a crowd of protestors, go the other way or go into a hotel.
Also, even when you don’t see any demonstrations, your visit in Hong Kong may still be affected as protesters occasionally block key roads and authorities may close subway stations during mass marches. That, at times, makes it challenging to get around Hong Kong. However, during most of the demonstrations, transport links outside the neighborhoods where the protests are taking place are unaffected. And despite all the protests and transit impacted, it’s still business as usual in Hong Kong and the main tourist attractions – the Star Ferry, the night markets, and the Peak Tram – remain open.
Is air travel disrupted? What if my flight is cancelled?
On August 12 and 13th, authorities took the extraordinary measure of closing Hong Kong International Airport and cancelling all departing flights, since large crowds of demonstrators had gathered inside the airport, some of them clashing with police. Several airlines, including Hong Kong’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific, urged passengers to postpone all non-essential travel from the territory. The airport, one of the world’s busiest, is the main international transport link in and out of the territory and the temporarily closure is likely to have given a major blow to Hong Kong’s economy and tourism.
It is possible that similar events may occur again in the near future. However, a court injunction – which remains in place until August 23 – has been issued restricting protestors from obstructing or interfering with the airport activities. That said, given the potential of other disruption, it is important to always review your flight status with your airline or at the Hong Kong International Airport website.
Some airlines are now issuing travel waivers which allow you to change your ticket for free. Should you be unlucky to face a flight cancellation to/from Hong Kong, you will be rescheduled by your airline on another flight. If you are stranded in Hong Kong because of a flight disruption and you need to leave urgently, it is still possible to get out of Hong Kong via Shenzhen or Macau:
- You can take a car, train or bus to Shenzhen in neighboring mainland China, where there is an international airport. To enter mainland China, however, you will need a visa which – depending on what type of passport the applicant holds – can be applied for at the border or in advance in Hong Kong.
- Alternatively, you can take a ferry ride from Hong Kong to Macao, which also has an international airport and which has a visa exemption in place for travelers of certain countries.
What does the Hong Kong government advises to travelers?
The Hong Kong government is clear: the city is still open for business and tourism, with travel agents, hotels and business organizations trying to minimize disruptions. “Hong Kong remains a welcoming city for tourists and investors, a safe place for travelers from around the world,” the government states on a website launched in response to traveler concerns. This online portal puts the facts at your fingertips covering transportation advice in relation to protests, clarifications of fake news, government press releases, conferences and events and more. It provides useful and timely information for business people, travelers and residents alike.
“The Government, the business sector – in particular the tourism, convention and exhibition, retail and food and beverage sectors – as well as the community at large, all stand ready to welcome and assist visitors to Hong Kong any time,” the site said. However, the website also acknowledges that in recent weeks protesters have blocked roadways, vandalized property and confronted police in unlawful assemblies.
What do overseas governments advise to their travelers?
Several countries have issued travel advisories about Hong Kong, urging travelers to exercise increased caution over the protests and steer clear of areas where demonstrations are taking place. Those countries include the USA, Australia, United Kingdom, most European countries, Canada, Japan and Singapore. Importantly, none of these nations have advised tourists to avoid Hong Kong.
For example, the USA has issued a “Level 2” travel advisory for Hong Kong, up from standard Level 1. Before that alarms you, a Level 2 warning is the same level as the UK, Spain, Barbados, Italy and many more. The USA gives its citizens the following advice when visiting Hong Kong:
- Monitor local media for updates.
- Avoid the areas of the demonstrations.
- Exercise caution if you are in the vicinity of large gatherings or protests.
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Keep a low profile.
- Review your flight status with your airlines or at the Hong Kong International Airport website.
- Follow U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong on Facebook and Twitter.
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
- Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
- Review the crime and safety report for Hong Kong.
How likely is a Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong?
China has never used its military power in Hong Kong, but the regime has indicated that it ready to do so if the situation in Hong Kong cannot be contained by local forces. And there are signs that the Chinese may be preparing for a military intervention in Hong Kong. Thousands of troops, tanks, helicopters, and amphibious vehicles have gathered in Shenzhen, a city in mainland China bordering Hong Kong, where they are exercising in anti-riot drills. The troops belong to the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force, a paramilitary police force responsible for riot control and counterterrorism.
However, several experts are skeptical that China is ready to pull the trigger just yet on a move that would likely have devastating consequences for its relations with the West. They say that the recent displays are part of a wider strategy aimed at intimidation and deterrence. Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said: “Beijing is trying to deter escalating protests by signaling that it’s determined to intervene with military force if necessary. But the complexity, as well as the risk of such an operation, is so high at this point that it’s just not worth it to the leadership in Beijing.”