A fringe pro-independence party and a historic journalists’ club have been thrust into the forefront of the intensifying battle over free speech and the rule of law in Hong Kong, a semi- autonomous Chinese territory that has long prided itself on its civic freedoms.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong on Tuesday hosted a talk by Andy Chan, the founder of the Hong Kong National party, defying pressure from Chinese officials to cancel the event, which one likened to hosting a Nazi, terrorist or criminal.
Dozens of protesters lined up outside the club’s premises in central Hong Kong, chanting slogans such as “Kick the FCC out of the building”, “Get them out of the city” and “Catch the demons and eradicate them”.
Mr Chan, a soft-spoken 27-year-old activist whose party is facing a proposed ban by the Hong Kong police, said the unprecedented attempt to outlaw his organisation and the efforts to stop him speaking at the FCC showed that there was “no longer freedom of speech in Hong Kong”.
“Hong Kong is no longer that much different from China, and the international community have to acknowledge that,” he said.
Under pressure from Chinese president Xi Jinping to curb opposition to Beijing, the Hong Kong government has intensified a crackdown on activists, jailing protesters, ousting outspoken
politicians from the territory’s Legislative Council and banning proponents of independence and self-determination, including Mr Chan, from running in elections.
The squeeze on dissent — and Beijing’s growing interventions in the city — has undermined faith in the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement under which the city was promised civic freedoms, legal independence and a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after the 1997 handover from British rule.
Mr Chan said efforts to stop him speaking at the FCC showed there was ‘no longer freedom of speech in Hong Kong’ © AP
Chris Ng, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, a pro-democracy organisation, said the push to silence Mr Chan highlighted the growing threat to freedom of speech in Hong Kong and the “core values” that have made the city a thriving hub for commerce.
“Even though I don’t agree with him, we think it’s the right of the Hong Kong National party to advocate the idea of independence because we treasure the bigger values,” he said.
The opposition to Mr Chan and the FCC was led by CY Leung, the former Hong Kong leader and a senior member of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, who said that allowing him to speak was no different to giving a platform to a Nazi, terrorist or criminal.
Mr Leung called on the government to reconsider its lease of a historic building to the FCC, which has often hosted talks by Chinese and Hong Kong
officials, as well as dissidents, and has among its members many journalists from international media organisations, including the Financial Times. Victor Mallet, FCC acting president, is Asia news editor of the FT.
The Hong Kong government said on Tuesday that it was “totally inappropriate and unacceptable” for the FCC to host Mr Chan.
The Chinese foreign ministry said Mr Chan’s activities had “seriously damaged national security” and it attacked the FCC for “blatantly interfering with the rule of law” and “abusing freedom of the press and speech”.
The FCC said in a statement that it was “vitally important to allow people to speak and debate freely, even if one does not agree with their particular views”.
Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu
Articles originally appear in Financial Times on 14 August 2018.