The Hong Kong government on Tuesday hit out at the city's Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) after it went ahead with plans to allow a pro-independence politician to speak at a lunch event in the face of widespread criticism from ruling Chinese Communist Party officials and supporters.
Chan Ho-tin, also known as Andy Chan, who heads the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), gave his lunchtime address to the club in spite of warnings and threats from Hong Kong officials, and amid calls for the government to evict the club from its premises in the downtown Central district.
"It is totally inappropriate and unacceptable for any person to openly promote and advocate the independence of Hong Kong," a government spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday. "As such, it is also totally inappropriate and unacceptable for any organization to provide a public platform to espouse such views."
Chan's political views are a "direct affront to the national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China," the statement said.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms of speech, association and publication for 50 years, and the FCC brushed aside any suggestion that Chan should have been denied a platform because of his political views.
"Hosting such events does not mean that we at the FCC either endorse or oppose the views of our speakers," the club's first vice-president Victor Mallet told journalists at the event. "Our bottom line is freedom of speech and freedom of the press."
"As long as that's legal, then we're legal," he said.
Earlier, the club's board of directors posted a statement that was unavailable on Tuesday, as the FCC's main site was offline.
"We’re working on getting the site back up ASAP!" the FCC said via its Twitter account.
Meanwhile, Chan said there was scant legal basis for objecting to his speech.
"If I really have broken any law, then the government really should arrest me immediately, rather than seeking to put pressure on the foreign media," Chan told reporters at the event. "They [don't want] the foreign media to report anything that has to do with Hong Kong independence or sovereignty, because that would give a platform to those ideas."
"They want to set a precedent, so that the local media doesn't dare to report it either, or to invite me onto programs to be interviewed," he said.
Chan said the moves to silence him and his party by preventing the HKNP from registering as a civil society or company had little basis in current Hong Kong law.
"This is a political matter, and of course the government is going to ban us," he said. "If the pursuit of human rights, liberty and dignity is treason, or if it's said to be harming state security, then we have no choice but to harm it."
‘FCC turned a blind eye’
Pro-Beijing lawmakers called on Tuesday for the government to terminate the FCC's lease on its premises early, while some said the club should be banned in the city.
Junius Ho told government broadcaster RTHK that the club could run afoul of existing "sedition" legislation under section 10 of the Crimes Ordinance.
"Assisting anyone who publicizes seditious statements in Hong Kong would also be subject to prosecution under section 10 of the Crimes Ordinance," Ho told the station.
"The FCC, knowing full well the background of the case, turned a blind eye and chose to ignore the situation, and I think they are stepping on very thin ice," he said.
Former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who now holds a high-ranking advisory post in the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), has made repeated reference to the club's lease in comments on Facebook this month.
Chan said Leung's comments "definitely constitute a threat."
The FCC said in an Aug. 6 statement that Hong Kong "rightly prides itself" in its rule of law and freedom of speech.
"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," it said.
Moves by the Hong Kong government to ban the HKNP, which advocates independent status for the city, have been widely criticized as representing the end of its traditional freedom of speech and association.
Hong Kong police have gathered more than 700 documents as "evidence" supporting their call to ban the Hong Kong National Party, citing many public speeches and comments made by Chan.
Critics have hit out at the government for criminalizing speech in the city, which was promised the continuation of its existing way of life for 50 years, under the terms of the 1997 handover to China.
The Hong Kong government shelved its initial bid to bring in subversion and sedition laws following a mass street protest of around half a million people in 2003, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party has said it expects the administration to introduce a new bill to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo).
Under the United Nations-endorsed Johannesburg Principles governing national security and human rights law, restrictions to freedom of speech on the grounds of national security aren't legitimate if they seek to "entrench a particular ideology," rather than to stave off a violent threat of a military or internal nature.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.