Why Hong Kong independence activist talk at FCC must go on, even if the ideas don’t warrant a megaphone

Michael Chugani says government officials’ overreaction to the planned talk by a Hong Kong National Party co-founder at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club has provoked attention to a lost cause and displays a lack of understanding of local media freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2018, 7:54pm

What was Beijing thinking? And Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor? And her predecessor Leung Chun-ying? Surely, they know the Foreign Correspondents’ Club would and could never bow to demands to disinvite independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin as a guest speaker. If they can’t grasp this, it exposes a troubling ignorance of Hong Kong’s media culture.

Free speech is the heartbeat of the FCC. Asking it to self-censor is like asking it to put a gun to its head. Once it invited Chan, there was no turning back. If it did on Beijing’s order, its very existence as a free speech bastion would be a joke.

Beijing, Lam and Leung need to accept this reality, however unpalatable they find it. Yes, self-censorship exists in sections of the Hong Kong media. But overall media freedom is still intact. It’s a core value the public demands. The media must either swim with this or sink. So must the FCC, which has many local and foreign journalists among its members.

It’s a Hong Kong trait that the more you try to silence a voice, the louder it gets. There really wasn’t any need to silence Chan’s voice because it never resonated with the public. Most Hongkongers shrug off independence as a fantasy. By trying to silence him, Beijing has handed him a megaphone.

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Speakers like former British governor Chris Patten, Leung and Lam always guarantee a full house at the FCC. I attended Lam’s talk last year where she spoke her mind on many issues. I remember a Beijing official drawing a packed audience some years ago. Chan’s lunch talk on nationalism next week would have attracted sparse interest had Beijing not tried to ban him. Now it’s full house with guaranteed local and foreign media coverage.

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I am no China basher, as I have made clear before. Chan’s Hong Kong National Party was dead on arrival. Its loony ideology made me laugh. Ignoring it would have snuffed it out. But Beijing and local leaders gave it life by exaggerating its threat. Beijing has now played into the hands of opponents who will use the megaphone it has given them to magnify China as an authoritarian regime that suppresses free speech.

Make no mistake. Beijing bashers in the US will definitely use the attempted silencing of the FCC as further proof China is an Orwellian state that must be confronted in a new cold war. Some have suggested so-called foreign forces are behind the FCC’s decision to invite Chan. As a long-time FCC member, I know that is trash talk.

What is more plausible is that as US-China rivalry ramps up, Beijing fears adversaries could use the National Party, which operates in free society Hong Kong, as a proxy to threaten national security. That’s why it ordered our government to ban it even though Chan and his tiny party of pipe dreamers pose zero threat on their own.

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If the Hong Kong National Party is banned, who next?

What puzzles me is why Beijing tried to silence Chan at the FCC but not anywhere else. He was all over the media after the government sought to ban his party. He even debated with other guests at an RTHK forum. Why didn’t Beijing, Lam and Leung press newspapers, television and radio stations not to give him a voice?

It’s fait accompli that the National Party will be banned. Once that happens, will it mean the media can no longer interview him even though he has not used violence to advocate independence? If yes, it will be the first time the Hong Kong media is barred from interviewing a person.

It will be a sad day for Hong Kong if Carrie Lam, her top officials and Beijing officials boycott the FCC in retaliation for its refusal to silence Chan, or for the government to take back the premises.

They have put the FCC between a rock and a hard place. Squeezing it further will send a global message that free speech is dying in Hong Kong.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host