China warns Hong Kong journalists’ club after activist speech

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Andy Chan (C), founder of the Hong Kong National Party, is surrounded by members of the media as he leaves the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) in Hong Kong on August 14, 2018. Hong Kong independence activist Andy Chan attacked China as an empire trying to "annex" and "destroy" the city in a no-holds barred speech August 14 at the city's press club which Beijing wanted cancelled. / AFP PHOTO / Philip FONG

Hong Kong’s foreign journalists’ club found itself at the center of the latest battle over free speech in the financial hub, as Beijing loyalists protested a local activist’s lunchtime talk in which he denounced China as a “colonial power.”

Several dozen pro-China demonstrators chanted slogans outside the Foreign Correspondents’ Club during the address by independence advocate Andy Chan. In his remarks, the 27-year-old hit back at the government’s unprecedented effort to ban his National Party, comparing it to campaigns to suppress political opposition in democratically run Taiwan and China’s regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

“The situation is so dire that I dare say Hong Kong has never experienced such colonalism until 1997,” Chan said, referring to the year that the U.K. returned the city to China. “Peking is now our colonial master.”

The club, whose more than 2,000 members include journalists from some of the world’s best-known news organizations, went ahead with the event despite calls by the city’s former top official to reconsider the group’s lease on government property. The dispute highlights how Beijing’s push to silence a small but vocal independence movement could undermine the political freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong before its return to Chinese rule.

Outside, several groups of protesters — some pro-China, some pro-independence and other more moderate democracy advocates — gathered around the FCC’s colonial-era clubhouse, separated by police. One Beijing supporter, Sandy Li, called for the government to kick the club out of the centrally located building.

“Hong Kong is part of China — this is irrefutable,” Li said, while standing in front of a banner that denounced the group as “mean and sinister.” “Would the United Kingdom let London become independent? Is London a country? This is treason.”

Freedom of speech and assembly are enshrined in the city’s charter, and Hong Kong police said they approved three applications to stage protests. “Hong Kong police always respect the right of freedom of expression and will usually only intervene when there is a potential breach of the peace,” police spokesman Kong Wing-cheung said Monday.

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Chan’s speech comes a year after President Xi Jinping visited the city and warned that he would tolerate no challenges to Chinese authority. The FCC’s invitation drew an unusually blunt rebuke from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which urged the organization to cancel the speech.

The club refused, saying it championed free speech and welcomed speakers of all views. The club has hosted government officials and critics such as Joshua Wong, a leader of the pro-democracy “Occupy Central” protests in 2014. Bloomberg journalists are members of the organization and serve on its board.

The pro-China protesters presented a letter objecting to the speech to an FCC representative.

Wayne Chan, a leader of the Student Independence Union, criticized police for not allowing his group of about 10 protesters to approach the larger gathering near the club.

“Hong Kong is an international city,” Wayne Chan said. “We should respect all political views, pro independence party, pro-democracy party.”

Former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying fanned tensions with an Aug. 4 open letter questioning whether the FCC would also host “criminals and terrorists.” Leung said the club’s premises had been leased for a “token rent,” and subsequently called for the space to be put out for an open bid.

While Leung’s successor, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said that the club paid a “market rate” for its facilities, she called the decision to host Chan “regrettable.” Lam was scheduled to travel to Beijing on Tuesday for meetings about a Xi-backed project to better integrate Hong Kong’s economy with the mainland’s.

Andy Chan argues that the “one country, two systems” model that was supposed to ensure a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong hasn’t worked given China’s growing influence over the city. He says he’s concerned that China wants to curtail the freedoms credited with maintaining Hong Kong’s place as a global financial hub.

The idea of an independent Hong Kong is widely seen as unfeasible, a position shared by the U.K. when it handed over sovereignty to China in 1997. The city doesn’t have its own military and gets most of its food, water and electricity from the mainland, which also represented about half of its global trade last year.

The move to ban the National Party has fed fears that authorities want to set a precedent for clamping down on other opposition groups. By exaggerating the party’s threat, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments may be laying the groundwork to revive a shelved national security law, said Chung Kim-wah, a political scientist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

“It seems they wanted to look for some loopholes in local legislation, and give it an interpretation that becomes a precedent,” Chung said. “We all know the discussion of independence in Hong Kong is confined to only a small percentage of the people.” — Bloomberg