In challenge weeks of the escalation of government pressure, A Hong Kong independence activist delivered a much-anticipated speech to a packed house of local and international media at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) on Tuesday, calling on the city to secede from China but offering little roadmap.
“If Hong Kong were to become truly democratic, the sovereignty of Hong Kong must rest with the people of Hong Kong. And there is only one way to achieve this, independence,” said Andy Chan Ho-tin, the 27-year-old leader of the young Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), who is currently facing the prospect of an unprecedented ban by the Hong Kong government on the grounds that the group poses an “imminent threat “for national security.
As Chan spoke, loudspeakers blasted chants from the crowd of pro-China protesters thronging the sidewalks outside the club, who were waving Chinese banners and flags.
Beijing has sternly indicated that it will not tolerate calls for independence from the former British colony, which is now a semi-autonomous region of China. In a speech to town last year, President Xi Jinping warned: “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security [or] challenging the power of the central government… is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely inadmissible.
Upon returning to China in 1997, the financial hub was guaranteed protection of its civil liberties and the rule of law under a framework called “One Country, Two Systems”. But the city’s autonomy has come under increasing threat in recent years, and Chan’s appearance at the FCC has rekindled fears of a deterioration in free speech in Hong Kong.
Pro-Beijing protesters chant slogans against pro-independence activist Andy Chan, who is due to deliver a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), in Hong Kong on August 14, 2018.
Philippe Fong—AFP/Getty Images
After Tuesday’s lunch, the Hong Kong government issued a statement saying it “deeply regrets” the FCC’s decision to hold the event. “It is totally inappropriate and unacceptable for anyone to openly promote and defend Hong Kong independence,” a spokesperson said. “As such, it is also completely inappropriate and unacceptable for any organization to provide a public platform to espouse such views.”
“We have continuously supported the work of the FCC over the decades,” the statement continued. “However, providing a public platform for a speaker to openly defend independence completely disregards Hong Kong’s constitutional duty to uphold national sovereignty.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has also released a statement denouncing the FCC for providing a platform to “poison the minds of the people”, calling it a “gross interference in the rule of law” that “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people”.
“Journalists must have professional ethics and cannot use the pretext of freedom of the press and speech to do dirty business that harms the sovereign security of other countries.” he added. “It’s hypocrisy and self-deception.”
Earlier this month, Beijing sent a representative from the Ministry of Affairs to the FCC to urge the club to “reconsider their decision” to welcome Chan. The FCC, a bastion of free speech in Asia, rejected Beijing’s suggestion and stood by its decision to let Chan speak.
“These events are really at the heart of the FCC,” First Vice President Victor Mallet said in opening luncheon remarks. “The fact that this lunch now appears to be far from normal and has generated such exceptional interest in Hong Kong and around the world, I believe, tells us more about the political climate in Hong Kong and Beijing than it does about the FCC. . .”
“Holding such an event does not imply that we at the FCC endorse or oppose the views of our speakers,” Mallet added. “Where we take a stand is on the issue of freedom of expression in Hong Kong in Asia and around the world. And the FCC believes that its members, and the general public, have the right, and in the case of correspondents and reporters, we have a professional responsibility, to hear the views of different sides in any debate.
Pro-independence activist Wayne Chan is kicked out by police from a location outside the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), as people protest ahead of a speech by pro-independence activist Andy Chan, in Hong Kong August 14, 2018.
Philippe Fong—AFP/Getty Images
In recent days, the FCC has drawn the ire of pro-Beijing loyalists in Hong Kong, who have been quick to express their dismay. In a series of nine Facebook posts, former Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying appeared to threaten the club by questioning the terms of its lease, falsely stating that its historic premises in downtown Hong Kong were rented at a “symbolic price”. Francis Moriarty, former member of the board of directors of FCC, said in a Facebook post that when he left the board three years ago, the club was paying about $77,000 a month in rent, a market rate.
In his address, Chan said Hong Kong faces the “cleansing” of an imperial China and that “Beijing is now our colonial master”, using the archaic name of Beijing. “Time and time again our government has shown that the freedom or democracy it claims to stand for are nothing but communist mirages,” Chan said.
However, he was unable to offer specifics. He declined to give numbers on party membership or describe the economic basis on which an independent Hong Kong would exist. An audience member asked how long Chan planned to continue “this charade.”
Originally a youth group called “Common Sense”, named after Thomas Paine’s eponymous tract that inspired the American public to revolt against the British in the 18th century, the HKNP is a fringe party founded by Chan in March 2016 With minimal activity and no elected legislators, it wields minimal influence. In the 2016 legislative elections, Chan and four other contenders were disqualified.
Chan earlier told TIME that efforts to block his speech at the FCC amounted to an attempt by China to “colonize Hong Kong,” adding, “[The Chinese government is] prevent journalists from reporting news to the international society as they do in China.
Independence in Hong Kong enjoys little support. According investigation11.4% of Hong Kongers favored independence, down 6% from a year earlier
In July, Hong Kong authorities presented Chan with a dossier containing hundreds of surveillance pages collected over the past two years and gave him until September to respond explaining why his party should not be banned.
—With video by Abhishyant Kidangoor/Hong Kong
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