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Benny Tai Yiu-ting

I listened to Benny Tai’s independence remarks before weighing in, Hong Kong leader says

Carrie Lam rejects accusations by law professor that government targeted him without checking the facts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 2:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 April, 2018, 11:27pm

Hong Kong’s leader on Friday said she had watched the video in which pro-democracy scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting claims the city could “consider becoming an independent state”, as she dismissed his accusations the government had criticised him without checking the facts.

Breaking her week-long silence on the matter, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the government statement released on Friday last week had not infringed on city residents’ rights to freedom of speech or academic freedom.

She also rejected suggestions the government was planning to enact controversial national security legislation to tackle comments like Tai’s.

Lam was non-committal on calls from pro-Beijing politicians for the University of Hong Kong scholar to be dismissed from his position and prosecuted. She said it was not for her to decide whether Tai should keep his job or whether he had broken any laws.

In response on Friday, Tai later wrote on Facebook that he was “extremely disappointed” with the chief executive.

“How did my remarks that day constitute advocacy of Hong Kong independence or self-determination?” Tai wrote. “Why did the government not let me defend myself before issuing the statement?”

Lam was speaking a day after Hong Kong’s No 2 official, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, said there was no need to associate the furore surrounding Tai’s independence comments with the enactment of national security legislation.

Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, the government is required to enact laws against sedition or treason. The last attempt to do so – in 2003 – was shelved after widespread public outcry over a perceived threat to freedoms.

On Friday Lam went into the rationale behind the government’s strong statement last week.

“It is the government and society’s responsibility to safeguard national security and territorial integrity,” she said.

No need to link Benny Tai’s independence comments to launch of national security laws, Hong Kong No 2 official says

“Remarks that encourage Hong Kong’s independence or self-determination ... are absolutely unacceptable as they contravene the [Chinese] constitution and the Basic Law.”

The political storm stems from Tai’s comments last month at a seminar in Taipei organised by the Taiwan Youth Anti-Communist Corps. Video footage of the event shows Tai making the argument that following the end of “dictatorship” in China, various ethnic groups and regions could choose to exercise their right to self-determination by deciding how to link up with each other.

In reference to Tai’s argument that the government had criticised him without checking the facts, Lam said: “I watched what he said on YouTube before agreeing to issue the statement ... It is the government’s responsibility to make things clear.”

The chief executive said her critics, including Tai, were trying to divert public attention by associating the government’s criticism with civil liberties.

“We are not trying to suppress freedom of speech ... This was unrelated to academic freedom, and we are not using this [to prepare for] Article 23 legislation,” Lam said.

Asked if Tai had done anything illegal or should be fired by the university, Lam said: “We have not taken any legal [action], and it’s not for me to say whether he has broken any law or whether he should keep his teaching job.

Four things Benny Tai should know about ‘free speech’ and the clash of freedoms

“Although the universities are publicly funded, we respect their autonomy. We have not done anything about Tai’s job – this is to be handled by the University of Hong Kong.”

During separate meetings at Government House on Friday, both pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho Kwan-yiu and pro-democracy lawmakers asked Lam if the government planned to prosecute Tai. Lam shrugged off the questions, saying on both occasions that she would “do things according to the law”, sources said.

A government source added that officials see no way to prosecute Tai under existing law.

Tai’s teaching position appears to be safe. HKU’s law dean Michael Hor told the Post earlier this week that he was “not aware of any complaint directed to the faculty”, but university procedures were in place to deal with any.

Opposition pan-democrat lawmakers were set to stage a rally on Saturday evening outside the legislature, to voice opposition to attacks by Chinese state media on Tai and what they said were attempts to restrict freedom of speech.

Tai was due to attend the event, along with Chan Kin-man and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. The trio were instrumental in spearheading Hong Kong’s Occupy protests in 2014 calling for democratic reforms.