Hong Kong press club pressured by Beijing to cancel talk

Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party in August 2016. File Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP
Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party in August 2016. File Photo: Anthony Wallace / AFP

[UPDATED] Hong Kong’s leader joined mainland China Sunday in urging the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club to cancel a planned speech by a Hong Kong  independence advocate whose party is threatened with a ban.

“We respect the international media and respect the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s activities in Hong Kong,” said Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, expressing “regret” at the planned event.

“I hope our friends in the FCC will also respect that the Hong Kong SAR is an inseparable part of the People’s Republic of China,” she said, noting that its historic club building was government-owned.

Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region of China, enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland under a handover agreement signed by Britain and China.

But concern is growing that these freedoms including freedom of speech are being eroded by an increasingly assertive China.

The FCC is due to host a talk by Andy Chan, convenor of the tiny pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, on August 14. Authorities formally applied last month to ban the party.

It was the first time such a ban has been sought since Britain handed over Hong Kong in 1997 and was the latest move to stifle calls for the city’s independence, which have infuriated China even though they attract little support.

Freedom of speech
China’s foreign ministry recently requested a meeting with the FCC and asked for the event with Chan to be cancelled, a source told AFP.

In a statement issued Friday the ministry said: “We resolutely oppose any external forces providing a platform for ‘Hong Kong independence’ elements to spread fallacies.”

The talk is part of a “club lunch” tradition which has seen an array of speakers, including Chinese officials, speak to members and the media.

The club said it had no plans to scrap Chan’s talk, which will be live streamed via Facebook.

“We stand for freedom of the press, we stand for freedom of information… we are very keen to hear everybody speak from all sides of the political debate,” FCC vice president Victor Mallet told AFP.

“We of course have often had Chinese officials and others making their case at the club, but also their opponents. And this applies to every country, not just China,” Mallet added.

Hong Kong’s former leader Leung Chun-ying — whose administration faced down major youth-led democracy protests in 2014 — weighed in on Facebook, saying that discussion of Hong Kong independence “is an absolute and clear red line”.

In a separate post addressed to Mallet, Leung wrote: “We ought to be gravely concerned if this is the policy of your Club because before long you will invite advocates for Taiwan independence to speak publicly at your Club.”

Perched on the slopes of downtown Central and housed in a colonial-era building, the FCC has served as a venue for debates and media gatherings since its arrival in the city in 1949.

Hong Kong police last month sought to ban Chna’s party — which promotes the city’s independence from China but only has a core membership of around a dozen people — citing it as a national security threat.

The city’s security chief had said he was considering the police’s request while the party was given a few weeks to make representations.

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