Hong Kong government ‘shocked’ by Occupy leader Benny Tai’s independence comments at Taiwan seminar
University of Hong Kong law professor hits back saying government did not have its facts straight and was attacking free speech
A liberal academic who was a key leader of the 2014 Occupy protests has earned an unusually strong public rebuke from the Hong Kong government for suggesting in Taiwan that the city could “consider becoming an independent state”.
“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is shocked by the remarks made by a university teaching staff member that Hong Kong could consider becoming an independent state, and strongly condemns such remarks,” a spokesman said on Friday.
Any advocacy of separating Hong Kong from China would go against the “one country, two systems” principle and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the spokesman warned.
But University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting hit back at the administration, accusing it of attacking free speech and insisting he had only suggested independence could be one of the options for Hong Kong some day when China became a democratic country.
The political storm stems from Tai’s remarks this week at a seminar in Taipei organised by the Taiwan Youth Anti-Communist Corps, which was subsequently widely reported – and condemned – by Beijing’s mouthpieces in Hong Kong for several days in a row.
Video footage of the seminar showed Tai making the argument that following the end of “dictatorship” in China, the country’s various ethnic groups could exercise their right to self-determination and decide how they could link up with each other.
“We could consider going independent, being part of a federal system or a confederation system similar to that of the European Union,” he said.
Tai issued a statement on Friday saying he was disappointed by the government for criticising him without getting the facts straight.
The law scholar, one of the organisers of the Occupy movement that led to 79 days of road blockades in the name of fighting for greater democracy, said he had told the seminar “dictatorship” in China would end one day and it would eventually become a democratic country. By then, he argued, Hongkongers could have universal suffrage and exercise their right to self-determination, with independence as one of several options.
“I have already published these remarks in newspapers earlier and there is nothing new about it,” he said. “The government’s high-profile move to issue a statement targeted at me makes one suspect whether it is trying to pave the way for the legislation of Article 23.”
He was referring to the clause in the Basic Law which requires the city to enact its own legislation banning any act of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion against the central government.
The move also dealt a blow to free speech enjoyed by Hongkongers, as their right to discuss the future of the city and country was being suppressed, Tai added.
In a separate statement issued on Friday night, Tai stated that he neither supported the notion of Hong Kong independence, nor would he advocate a “self-determination” referendum as there was no condition for such a poll at this stage.
Former Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing, who attended the same forum in Taipei, said it was utterly unfair and inappropriate for the government to issue such a strongly-worded response without seeking any clarification from Tai beforehand and simply based on reports by the pro-Beijing media.
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“The government has created white terror to discourage people from accepting [seminar] invitations from others,” she said.
Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank, said it was rare for the government to issue a statement directly in response to comments made by a specific individual.
He said Tai’s remarks had not only touched a raw nerve with the local government but also Beijing, as both feared independence talk would affect young people and encourage other countries to “create trouble”.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding, vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, shared the government’s disapproval.
“Even if he enjoys the freedom of speech to make such claims, it was morally wrong to say such things in Taiwan,” Chow said.
Last month, the government issued a statement rejecting former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang’s remarks during a visit to the United States. She had accused the administration of “naked political screening of pro-democracy candidates” for banning young activist Agnes Chow Ting from running for a Legislative Council seat on the grounds that her party advocated self-determination for Hong Kong.
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung