Why Hong Kong independence should not be discussed at the FCC under the banner of freedom of speech
Graeme Maxton says China, like other nations, has limits on freedom of speech and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club should respect this by keeping independence off the table
“Regrettable and inappropriate” was the response of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to the proposed Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) talk by separatist leader Andy Chan Ho-tin. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked the FCC to call off the talk. Past Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying has weighed in too, with not-so-subtle suggestions that the club’s rental of its Ice House Street premises might be open to question in the future, adding that the issue had nothing to do with press freedom. Yet a defiant Victor Mallet, the club’s first vice-president, says the meeting will go ahead next week.
As a gweilo who has been closely connected with Hong Kong all my life, an ardent supporter of free speech, an FCC member and sometime journalist, I find myself in a difficult place here. I would happily hear what Chan has to say and try to understand his views. But it is nonetheless clear to me that the FCC is mistaken on this occasion for three reasons.
First, there has been a growing tendency in the last decade, since the advent of social media, to change what is meant by free speech. This has obvious political undertones, to extend a globalised world view in the image of those who think their ideas reflect some natural order.
Free speech has become the right to say anything you like, even if it is just because it feels good, regardless of the consequences. So films of people being beheaded by terrorists are shown on YouTube, and elected parliamentary representatives in Britain are threatened with rape or murder on Twitter, and this is all somehow OK because it is now regarded as free speech.
Originally, free speech did not mean this at all. Free speech is a right, which comes with responsibilities. These responsibilities make enlightened societies function. And in this case, the responsibility that comes with free speech, as John Stuart Mill noted, is that what is said should not harm others. What “harm” means is obviously open to debate. So the definition is mostly left to governments and the legal system.
China is asking the FCC not to do something which will create division and might lead to social disorder. Whether we agree or not, it is where the Chinese state feels the limit lies, and as citizens we should think carefully before trying to challenge that limit. We should not just shoot from the hip in the name of someone else’s idea of “freedom”.
Watch: The Hong Kong pro-independence banner saga
Second, Hong Kong is part of China, and those who live here need to respect that. China is a sovereign state. With 7.4 million people, Hong Kong accounts for barely 0.5 per cent of the country, and while it has its own culture and identity, its legal status is not going to change any time soon.
The FCC has a responsibility to respect this. Just because societies work differently where some of its members come from, does not mean Beijing, Carrie Lam or Leung Chun-ying are wrong.
Third, while an institution should never be bigger than an idea, the FCC is a Hong Kong institution which many of us want to continue. At some point, perhaps, the current FCC leadership will return to where they came from but they must think about the legacy they are leaving Hong Kong’s journalists of the future. The opportunity to be a member of a hounded organisation, or the chance to be part of a club known for being a font of fresh ideas and home of open debate? The latter is preferable to me.
Graeme Maxton is a full member of the Club of Rome, a global network of renowned independent thinkers dedicated to addressing the challenges facing humanity
Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that Hong Kong’s population accounts for barely 5 per cent of the country. This is wrong. The percentage should be 0.5 per cent.