China urges Hong Kong Journalist Club to cancel activist speech

Hong Kong independence activist, Andy Chan. (Bloomberg pic)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s top foreign journalists’ club has found itself at the center of a battle over Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s freedoms, as Chinese officials pressed the group to cancel a speech by an independence activist.

The spat follows the Foreign Correspondents’ Club decision to invite activist Andy Chan to give a talk on Aug. 14 entitled “Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule.” The speech was expected to be closely watched, since it comes in the middle of an unprecedented effort by the Beijing-backed local government to ban Chan’s pro-independence National Party.

The event drew the ire of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which urged the FCC to cancel it. “We are firmly against the attempt of any external forces to provide a venue to the advocates for ‘Hong Kong independence’ to spread their nonsense,” the ministry’s Hong Kong office said Friday in a statement.

The unusually blunt criticism of the foreign media body comes a year after President Xi Jinping visited the city to mark two decades of Chinese rule and warned that challenges to Communist Party authority wouldn’t be tolerated. Pro-democracy activists fear Xi is trying to curtail freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong, which have been credited with sustaining its status as an international financial centre.

Victor Mallet, a Financial Times journalist and first vice president of the FCC, said Monday that the club would go ahead with Chan’s talk, under its policy of welcoming speakers with all points of view. He said the club was committed to freedom of the press enshrined in Hong Kong’s charter. The organization was expected to make a formal statement on Monday.

The dispute escalated after former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying posted an open letter to Mallet on Saturday, questioning whether the club would also host “criminals and terrorists” as speakers. Leung asserted that the FCC had leased its premises from the local government for only “a token rent.”

“Not many organizations in Hong Kong have received from the government this kind of support,” he said.

The FCC — with about 2,500 members — has hosted speakers from across the political spectrum, including Leung; Song Ruan, an official from the foreign ministry’s local branch; and democracy activist Joshua Wong, who was jailed for storming government property at the start of the mass “Occupy Central” protests in 2014.

Since the Occupy rallies, Chinese authorities have expressed alarm over the rise of a small, but vocal independence movement. Leung — a critic of the movement during his turbulent tenure — is now a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the Communist Party-led government in Beijing.

Leung’s successor, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, said Sunday that the FCC had paid a “market rate” for its premises, in a colonial-era building in Hong Kong’s central business district. Still, she called the decision to host Chan’s talk “regrettable and inappropriate.”

Mallet said the group had noted Lam’s comments. “But there are no plans to cancel or postpone the meeting,” he said.