A Hong Kong TV channel has pulled a reality show featuring a student activist and a veteran mainland Chinese democracy activist after the pair spoke in public about the possibility of independence for Hong Kong.
ViuTV canceled a Japan travel show featuring Hong Kong student leader Billy Fung and former 1989 protest leader Wang Dan after they attended a speaking engagement at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan at which they discussed the topic.
The free-to-air broadcaster issued a statement saying that the two presenters had made "improper speeches" and had held a press conference in Japan without the company's permission.
It also accused them of using the channel to promote independence for the former British colony, a taboo topic for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"Their pro-independence speeches were deceptive, and insulted China’s national dignity," it said.
The duo had attended a dinner and discussion event titled "Tensions between China and Hong Kong" during which Fung called for international support for Hong Kong independence, while Wang said that Hong Kong independence was not practical, but Hong Kong people should do it step by step, starting with a referendum, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.
"I think there is [behind-the-scenes] pressure being applied here, because this is such a sensitive topic," Fung told RFA on Thursday. "It probably crosses a red line from the Chinese Communist Party's point of view."
"I think this goes beyond the production team, and it has nothing to do with the press conference, which was actually a dinner ... that wasn't arranged by us anyway," he said.
Fung said the forbidding of any discussion of independence for Hong Kong was "worrying."
"Hong Kong used to be a place that enjoyed freedom of speech, so this is very worrying indeed," Fung said. "There seem to be a lot of things you're not allowed to say now, or if you do say them, there are consequences."
"That isn't the Hong Kong I used to know."
Serious blow to freedom of expression
Wang Dan said via his Facebook page that ViuTV had acted "shamelessly" in canceling the program.
"This is probably the last, and most serious blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong," Wang told RFA. "If a media organization can make a show and then not be able to air it, I think we can say that there is no longer any freedom of expression in Hong Kong."
He said direct interference from Beijing was a distinct possibility.
"Personally, I'm not inclined to think this was a case of self-censorship from the top," Wang said. "It's pretty simple; if the management of ViuTV had wanted to self-censor, they would never have made the program in the first place."
"I think they wanted to make it, but then they came up against so much resistance that they regretted it."
Wang, who told the dinner that he didn't think Hong Kong independence was a practical option for the city, said it was "absolutely disgusting" that ViuTV had implied that both Wang and Fung were advocating independence for Hong Kong, which was promised a high degree of autonomy and the continuation of its existing freedoms for 50 years after the 1997 handover to China.
Wang called on the senior management of ViuTV to apologize for their actions.
A recent opinion survey showed that almost 40 percent of young people in Hong Kong favor independence for the city in 2047, when existing arrangements with China expire.
Punish school talk of independence
But Beijing says it is out of the question, and Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying has ordered schools to punish any talk of the topic among students, threatening teachers with deregistration if they are found encouraging it.
Last month's elections to the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) saw a number of younger politicians, including pro-independence candidates, a former leader of the 2014 Occupy Central democracy movement and a campaigning land-rights activist, win seats.
The government, believed to be acting under pressure from Chinese officials, barred six people from standing as candidates because they had publicly expressed pro-independence views.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said any talk of independence is anathema for the Chinese government.
"Independence has always been one of the big questions in Hong Kong's history, but it's a red line that the government won't allow to be crossed," Lui said.
"To allow open expression of various views on Hong Kong independence on a TV show would be a transgression of that principle."
Lui said he didn't believe that Chinese officials had a hand in ViuTV's decision, however.
"I think it's more likely that they acted alone in this, because successful business people know how to position themselves correctly when it comes to politics [in China]," he said.
"Sometimes those in charge don't bother alerting the people above them: they know what needs to be done."
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.