Benny Tai accused of turning Hong Kong’s streets into ‘rivers of blood’ by pro-Beijing lawmakers during heated independence debate
Pro-democracy camp questions reasons for debate and suggests it is a pretext to pave the way for national security legislation
Pro-Beijing lawmakers reignited the row over Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s controversial independence remarks with a 75-minute attack on the activist in the Legislative Council on Thursday.
Members of the pro-establishment camp turned a request to adjourn into an opportunity to condemn the pro-democracy Occupy movement co-founder, while emphasising their own anti-independence beliefs.
One of the harshest comments came from lawmaker Holden Chow Ho-ding, who accused the activist of turning Hong Kong’s streets into “rivers of blood”.
Pro-democracy lawmakers hit back and said the debate was just a pretext to pave the way for national security laws and the implementation of Article 23 of the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Article 23 requires the city to enact laws making any act of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the central government a crime. The government was forced to shelve a bill aimed at doing just that in 2003, after half a million people took part in a march against it. Beijing has signalled its impatience with the stalemate in recent years.
Tai originally upset pro-Beijing lawmakers with comments he made in Taiwan, at a forum organised by anti-communist groups in March. The associate professor at the University of Hong Kong suggested the city could consider independence, or entering into a confederation with other regions of China, should the country become democratic in the future.
The Hong Kong government later issued an unusually harsh condemnation of him, one which was followed by the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and Beijing’s liaison office in the city.
Gary Chan Hak-kan requested the adjournment at the weekly meeting on Thursday morning, so the effect of Tai’s remarks in Taiwan could be discussed. The motion was passed with the full support of his camp – the majority in the chamber.
Though Tai has previously made it clear he is anti-independence, a volley of attacks from the pro-Beijing camp followed.
“The issue is nothing about freedom of speech … Benny Tai is no ordinary citizen but the founder of the lawbreaking Occupy Central,” Chan, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said, referring to the 2014 civil disobedience campaign for greater democracy.
“As a leader of a Hong Kong political movement, his remarks are not merely words.”
Chan criticised Tai for hurting the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong and the implementation of “one country, two systems”, the principle under which Beijing allows the city greater political freedoms than those enjoyed on the mainland.
He stressed the importance of the Legco debate in allowing “all colleagues to clarify their anti-independence stance”.
The debate featured impassioned condemnation speeches by the pro-Beijing camp, with Chow making his “rivers of blood” comment as he claimed Tai had fostered the atmosphere that allowed the Mong Kok riot of 2016 to take place.
In contrast, the pro-democracy camp questioned the intention of the attacks. Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai made it clear that the party was anti-independence, but said it was a staunch defender of free speech for Hong Kong’s people.
Wu said Tai had made it clear he did not support independence, yet the pro-Beijing camp and the government kept quoting him out of context. He said that was to pave the way for national security laws.
Lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, of the social service sector, read out a statement drafted by Tai in the chamber.
“Initiating a ‘Cultural Revolution-like denouncement’ against me is probably to pave the way for Article 23 legislation, or to redraw the political red line in the academic sector, and Hong Kong society with chilling effect, or to divide the pro-democracy camp,” Tai wrote. “Or, a mixture of all the above reasons.”
Tai called on all residents who believe in democracy and freedom to safeguard free speech in the city, no matter how Beijing keeps redrawing red lines.
Constitutional bureau head Patrick Nip Tak-kuen represented the government at the debate. Wrapping up the session, he said any advocacy of Hong Kong independence violates the Chinese constitution, the Basic Law and one country, two systems.
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He thanked Chan and all lawmakers “who condemned Tai’s independence remarks”.
“Everyone who loves Hong Kong has the responsibility to ensure that one country, two systems is moving in the fully right and accurate direction in Hong Kong,” he said. “And has the responsibility to say ‘no’ to any acts that clash with the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests.”