HONG KONG (AFP) - Former British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said it was "quite simply wrong" for Beijing to urge the city's Foreign Correspondents' Club to cancel a planned speech by an independence activist.
Patten's comments came after China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stepped in to request the decades-old press club pull the talk by Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party, a group threatened with a ban.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under an agreement which protected its way of life for 50 years, giving it rights unseen on the mainland, including freedom of speech.
But concern is growing that those freedoms are being eroded by an increasingly assertive Beijing.
"There is no justification for censoring people because you don't like what they have to say," said Patten in comments emailed to Agence France-Presse (AFP) as the FCC row escalates.
He said freedom of speech was one of the "hallmarks of an open society living under the rule of law" and was protected by the handover agreement.
"I have consistently argued against the idea of advocating independence for Hong Kong," added Patten.
"But I also continue to argue for Hong Kong's liberties and local autonomy. It is quite simply wrong for Beijing's Communist foreign ministry to get involved with an issue which should be determined within Hong Kong."
China's foreign ministry recently requested a meeting with the FCC and asked for the event to be cancelled, a source told AFP.
In a statement issued on Friday (Aug 3), the ministry said: "We resolutely oppose any external forces providing a platform for 'Hong Kong independence' elements to spread fallacies."
City leader Carrie Lam, appointed by a pro-Beijing committee, also weighed in on Sunday, expressing "regret" at the planned event and noting that the historic club building is government-owned.
The club has said Chan's talk on August 14 will still go ahead.
It is part of a "club lunch" tradition which has seen an array of speakers, including Chinese officials, address members and the media.
Activists calling for independence from Hong Kong emerged from the failure of the mass pro-democracy Umbrella Movement rallies of 2014 to win political reform.
Any talk of a split has become a red flag for Beijing, which has ramped up rhetoric against threats to its territorial integrity under President Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong police last month sought to ban Chan's party -- which promotes the city's independence from China but only has a core membership of around a dozen people -- citing it as a national security threat.
Hong Kong's security chief had said he was considering the police request while the party was given a few weeks to make representations.
Pro-independence campaigners and politicians calling for self-determination for Hong Kong have been banned from standing for office and disqualified from the legislature.
The city's best-known independence advocate Edward Leung was jailed for six years in June on rioting charges after clashes with police in 2016.