Don’t be naive and test the law with Hong Kong independence slogans, former Bar Association chairwoman says
Winnie Tam Wan-chi says all freedoms and rights come with boundaries, as dispute about posters on university campuses rumbles on
Hongkongers would be naive to keep testing the bottom line of the law by displaying pro-independence slogans since all freedoms and rights came with boundaries, a former chairwoman of the Bar Association said on Saturday.
Winnie Tam Wan-chi, who stepped down from the role early this year, said freedoms of expression were not limitless, and she warned that action advocating Hong Kong breaking away from Chinese rule could violate the city’s Crimes Ordinance.
No one has yet been charged under the legislation for such activity.
Her comments came after a row over pro-independence banners and posters on university campuses took a turn for the worse on Friday when the head of the Chinese University of Hong Kong issued an ultimatum to the student union to take them down. That was met with defiance from students, who accused the institution of self-censorship.
The heads of 10 tertiary learning institutions in the city on Friday issued a joint statement condemning what they called “abuses” of free speech.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung on Saturday described the joint statement as “explicit” and “correct” and expressed hope the controversy would end.
“Hong Kong independence is a complete violation of the Basic Law,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution. “Advocacy of Hong Kong independence even challenges the bottom line of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, which cannot be tolerated.”
The government safeguarded Hongkongers’ freedom of speech, but it was unacceptable for people to utilise loopholes to advocate independence, he added.
Tam, speaking on a radio show on Saturday, appeared to side with the university chiefs.
“Academic freedom does not mean that if you enter the gates of the university you are free to say and do anything,” Tam said.
It was acceptable to discuss Hong Kong independence in an academic way, debating the pros and cons, she conceded. But she doubted that was the case when people posted banners and posters, which she said would make those who disagreed feel pressure.
She said it was naive to keep testing the ability of the law to tolerate such actions since it would only lead to Hong Kong becoming more polarised and unstable. Advocating Hong Kong independence was a criminal offence, she said.
Under articles 9 and 10 of the ordinance, anyone who utters, does, or prepares to do anything with a seditious intent may be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of HK$5,000 and two years in jail.
However, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, of the University of Hong Kong, claimed the ordinance was laid out a long time ago and that acts such as posting banners and posters, without violence, were protected within the scope of free speech.
Chan argued that advocacy of issues including same-sex marriage and legalising euthanasia were against the Basic Law also, yet city residents were free to discuss them.
Independence banners at Hong Kong universities one more sign China is losing the battle to win over city’s youth
He expressed disappointment over the statement from the university heads and suggested political pressure had motivated it.
The controversy over banners and posters first erupted on September 4 when slogans such as “Fight for our homeland; fight for Hong Kong independence” appeared at Chinese University, before spreading to other institutions.
Another former Bar Association chairman, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who is a member of the Executive Council which advises Hong Kong’s leader on policy, also commented on the issue on another radio programme. He suggested altering articles 9 and 10 to authorise people with the rights of ownership or management to remove pro-independence slogans in public areas.
“A kind-hearted mother always spoils the children,” Tong said, citing a Chinese idiom to illustrate his view that universities and society had so far been lenient with students.
Meanwhile, the offending banners and posters remained intact at Chinese University on Saturday night, a day after its president Joseph Sung Jao-yiu issued the ultimatum.
The student union arranged for students to take turns “safeguarding” the banners. The union said it had reached out to management to arrange a meeting. Further action was under discussion, it said.