Francis Moriarty: China threatens foreign correspondents over choice of speaker

WILLIAMSTOWN — How much does Beijing dislike talk about independence for even a tiny part of China? A whole lot, it seems. Enough to warn the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) in Hong Kong that it risks being turfed out of its historic home if an advocate for the city's independence is allowed to speak there.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong informed the FCC of Beijing's opposition, stressing that the territory is an "inalienable" part of China. It said in a statement: "We resolutely oppose any external forces providing a platform for `Hong Kong independence' elements to spread fallacies."

Hong Kong's chief executive and her immediate predecessor are among the objectors. That list has grown to include local politicians and commentators in China-backed news media.

The FCC is resisting the unprecedented challenge, insisting that the convener of the Hong Kong National Party, Andy Chan Ho-tin, will speak to the club this Tuesday on "Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule."

His speech is being denounced in advance on the grounds of the risk to "national security." His group reportedly has about a dozen members.

The confrontation is making headlines there and abroad. It comes amid a general crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, a territory that was granted more freedom than any other part of China as part of its return from British administration in 1997.

Lurking within this controversy is a concept about which the the nation's rulers care deeply: the unitary state. This means that all power is held by the central authorities and no "residual" powers are left to provinces or cities. Any power granted to a jurisdiction is subject to withdrawal by Beijing, and any assertion to the contrary is anathema to the Communist Party.

China has been unhappy with the FCC before over its choice of speakers. It has usually let the club know quietly and, until now, there has always been an agreement to disagree.

This is the first time that Beijing's unhappiness has been openly linked to the lease on its historic home — a former ice house that was derelict when the FCC assumed tenancy in 1982. The club has responsibility for the old building's upkeep, and for rent on a seven-year lease that's subject to renewal.

(Full disclosure: I served on the FCC's board of governors for 23 years. My views on the speech, posted on Facebook, have been widely quoted in the Hong Kong press and elsewhere.)

Tightening grip since '14

The first shot fired openly came from a former Hong Kong chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, himself a deeply unpopular leader who became the target of mass demonstrations. Beijing pulled the plug on his leadership early. He unexpectedly resigned in December 2016. Leung was succeeded by his deputy, Carrie Lam, who currently holds the job.

Beijing's grip has been tightening over Hong Kong since youthful protesters occupied a commercial district abutting the Hong Kong government's headquarters in 2014.

The so-called Umbrella Movement demanded more democracy than China was willing to allow, and ended after 79 days in violent confrontations and arrests. This led to Leung's early departure. Despite this, he was elevated to vice-chairman of China's highest advisory body.

The Hong Kong government has been taking ever-stronger action against anyone supporting independence. This includes barring individuals from running for office or even registering as candidates. In June, Edward Leung, perhaps the best-known pro-independence figure, was sentenced to six years in jail after pleading guilty to rioting and assaulting a police officer.

Now, Beijing is trying to block independence advocates from speaking publicly.

In an open letter to the FCC, Leung expressed his "grave concern" and urged it to reconsider the invitation to Chan. Leung called independence a "red line" and, in what seems a veiled threat, reminded the club that it pays a "token rent" for its building. He later likened the invitation to giving "criminals and terrorists" a platform.

(Writing on Facebook, I supported the FCC's invitation to Chan, adding that Leung was "dead wrong" about the rent. When I left the FCC Board three years ago, the rent was about $77,700 per month. Over the years, maintenance has run into the millions.)

Carrie Lam also urged the club to reconsider, calling the invitation "regrettable and inappropriate." She expressed hope that journalists would respect the fact that Hong Kong was an inalienable part of China.

The FCC has issued two replies: The first said it values free speech, and the talk would give members a chance to learn more about the topic. The second noted that Chan and his party were in the news because local authorities had warned that they might be banned. In short, officials had made the issue newsworthy.

The last British governor, Chris Patten, has also weighed in. He called it "quite simply wrong" for Beijing to urge the club to cancel Chan's planned speech: "There is no justification for censoring people because you don't like what they have to say."

Patten also said freedom of speech was protected by the Sino-British handover agreement.

Eagle columnist Francis Moriarty is a former senior political correspondent for Radio Television Hong Kong, and continues to write about the Asian region.


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