Hong Kong press club pressured by Beijing to cancel talk

The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong is due to host a talk with Andy Chan (above), convenor of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, on Aug 14, 2018.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong is due to host a talk with Andy Chan (above), convenor of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, on Aug 14, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong (FCCHK) has come under pressure from Beijing to scrap a talk by a pro-independence advocate, the latest squeeze on the city's freedoms by Chinese authorities.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland which are protected by the 50-year handover agreement signed by Britain and China.

But concern is growing that the deal and those rights are under threat from an increasingly assertive China.

The FCCHK is due to host a talk with Andy Chan, convenor of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, on August 14 after authorities sought to ban the small but well-known party last month.

It was the first time such a ban has been sought since Britain handed sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and was the latest move to stifle any calls for independence, which have infuriated Chinese authorities.

China's foreign ministry recently requested a meeting with the FCCHK and asked for the event with Chan to be cancelled, a source with knowledge told AFP.

The foreign ministry did not directly address whether it had asked the press club to cancel the talk when asked by reporters.

But in a statement issued Friday it said: "We resolutely oppose any external forces providing a platform for 'Hong Kong independence' elements to spread fallacies."

The talk is part of a "club lunch" tradition which has seen an array of speakers from across the political spectrum, including Chinese officials, speak to members and the media.

The club said it had no plans to scrap Chan's talk.

"We stand for freedom of the press, we stand for freedom of information... We are very keen to hear everybody speak from all sides of the political debate," FCC vice president Victor Mallet told AFP.

"We of course have often had Chinese officials and others making their case at the club, but also their opponents. And this applies to every country, not just China," Mallet added.

Hong Kong's former leader Leung Chun-ying - whose administration faced down large, youth-led democracy protests in 2014 - weighed in on Facebook saying that discussion of Hong Kong independence "is an absolute and clear red line".

In a separate post addressed to Mallet, Leung wrote: "We ought to be gravely concerned if this is the policy of your Club because before long you will invite advocates for Taiwan independence to speak publicly at your Club."

Perched on the slopes of downtown Central and housed in a colonial-era building, the FCCHK has served as a venue for debates and media gatherings since its arrival in the city in 1949.

Hong Kong police last month sought to ban HKNP - which promotes the city's independence from China but only has a core membership of around a dozen people - citing it as a potential national security threat as Beijing ups pressure on any challenges to its territorial sovereignty.

The city's security chief had said he was considering the police's request while the party was given a few weeks to make representations.