Defying pressure by Beijing, the city’s leader and her predecessor, Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) says it will go ahead with hosting a speech by a pro-independence politician, whose party faces an unprecedented ban ostensibly on “national security” grounds.
In a statement released today, the club’s board of governors reaffirmed the planned Aug. 14 talk by National Party convener Andy Chan Ho-tin, despite objections by Chinese government officials, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and her predecessor, CY Leung.
It noted the club invited a “broad range of speakers and panellists” from across the political spectrum to address members and added that hosting such events didn’t mean the FCC endorsed or opposed the views of the presenters.
“The FCC believes its members and the public at large have the right – and in the case of journalists, the professional responsibility – to hear the views of different sides in any debate,” it read.
“Hong Kong rightly prides itself on its reputation as a place where the rule of law applies and where there is freedom of speech. Likewise, the FCC fully respects the law, and champions free speech and freedom of the press across Asia.
“We believe that in free societies such as Hong Kong it is vitally important to allow people to speak and debate freely, even if one does not agree with their particular views.”
The event has become the latest battle in Beijing’s attempts to quash any mention of independence advocacy in the city, amid what many see as the broader erosion of the autonomous region’s freedoms by the central authorities.
— FCC, Hong Kong (@fcchk) August 3, 2018
Last week, a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry official approached the FCC and asked them to reconsider allowing Chan to speak.
“We are firmly against the attempt of any external forces to provide venue to the advocates for ‘Hong Kong independence’ to spread their nonsense,” the city’s Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said later in a statement.
Not content with just denying HKers the right to free speech, the Chinese government has pressured foreign press to censor themselves, trying to block our party's club lunch talk at the @fcchk on 14th August. The FCC will be livestreaming the talk on Facebook.
— HK National Party (@hknationalparty) August 3, 2018
After the FCC declined to cancel the event, former chief executive CY Leung on Saturday took to Facebook to criticize the the club, which he accused of “crossing a red line” by hosting a separatist party.
He compared it to giving “criminals and terrorists” a platform, and asserted that there was a limit to freedom of speech.
He also made reference to the club paying a “token rent” to the government for its iconic Central location, in a seeming veiled threat to possible repercussions.
On Sunday, the city’s current leader Carrie Lam also weighed in, calling the FCC’s decision “inappropriate” and “regrettable.”
She moved to clarify that the FCC did pay market rates for its historic building, though noted that it got preferential treatment as its lease was renewed without going through a public tender.
In the wake of the furor, many have rushed to criticize the attack on free speech.
Among the voices joining the chorus, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten.
“There is no justification for censoring people because you don’t like what they have to say,” said Patten in comments emailed to AFP.
Patten said freedom of speech was one of the “hallmarks of an open society living under the rule of law” and was protected by the handover agreement.
“I have consistently argued against the idea of advocating independence for Hong Kong,” added Patten.
“But I also continue to argue for Hong Kong’s liberties and local autonomy. It is quite simply wrong for Beijing’s Communist foreign ministry to get involved with an issue which should be determined within Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong police last month sought to ban Chan’s party — which promotes the city’s independence from China but only has a core membership of about a dozen people — citing it as an “imminent” national security threat.
The proposed ban under the Societies Ordinance is the first time since its 1997 return to Chinese rule that the city has sought to outlaw a political party.
Hong Kong’s security chief had said he was considering the police request while the party was given a few weeks to make representations.
Pro-independence campaigners and politicians calling for self-determination for Hong Kong have been banned from standing for office and disqualified from the legislature.
The city’s best-known independence advocate, Edward Leung, was jailed for six years in June on rioting charges after clashes with police in 2016.
Additional reporting from AFP.