China's Bid to Muzzle Pro-Independence Leader Sparks Anger in Hong Kong

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The entry to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, in a file photo.
The entry to the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, in a file photo.
Courtesy of an RFA listener.

An attempt to stop an outspoken advocate of independence for Hong Kong from addressing a journalists' association in the city has sparked public criticism, including from its former colonial governor.

Beijing’s Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong issued a statement on Friday night condemning plans to have Hong Kong National Party leader Chan Ho-tin, also known as Andy Chan, address the city's Foreign Correspondents' Club.

"We resolutely oppose any external forces providing a platform for the independence forces to spread their absurd ideas," the statement said.

The FCC said the event would go ahead as planned.

"He and his party have been in the news since Hong Kong authorities have said they are considering banning the party," the club said in a statement on its website.

"Hosting such events does not mean that we either endorse or oppose the views of our speakers, who have included senior officials of the Chinese, Hong Kong and other governments as well as their opponents, and we will continue to welcome speakers with widely differing points of view in the future," the statement said.

"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 said, adding that it "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 club said.

Hong Kong's last colonial governor Chris Patten hit out at the attempt to put pressure on the FCC on Monday.

"There is no justification for censoring people because you don't like what they have to say," said Patten, who has repeatedly criticized any notion of possible independence for Hong Kong.

But he said freedom of speech was one of the "hallmarks of an open society living under the rule of law."

"It is quite simply wrong for Beijing's Communist foreign ministry to get involved with an issue which should be determined within Hong Kong," Patten said.

Threat to end lease seen

Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam said on Sunday that the FCC's decision was "regrettable."

"I think it is extremely regrettable that a certain organization is using the English term Hong Kong nationalism to describe advocates of so-called independence, and organizing an event around such a theme," Lam said.

"The chief executive and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government naturally think that this is totally inappropriate," she said.

Meanwhile, Lam's predecessor C.Y. Leung said the club's premises are leased from the government.

"This is, of course, a form of threat," Chan told RFA. "There is no need to bring up the fact that the building is leased from the government."

"What he means is that they could end the lease."

Chan said there is now an atmosphere of public denunciation in Hong Kong that harks back to the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in mainland China under late supreme leader Mao Zedong.

"If I have broken the law, then they should arrest me," he said. "The fact that they haven't shows that the government has no basis upon which to do that, so it has resorted to various threats instead."

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 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, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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