Hundreds take to streets calling for freedom of association after government seeks ban of Hong Kong independence party
Participants blew black whistles and warned ban would pave way for a return of national security legislation under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Saturday, accusing the government of “foul play” for seeking to ban a political party over its independence agenda.
While most pro-democracy groups did not condone calls for independence by the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), they joined the march in defence of freedom of association and speech after police branded the party an “imminent threat” to national security and public safety under the Societies Ordinance.
Participants blew black whistles, a reference to a Cantonese idiom for bending the rules, and warned the ban would pave the way for a return of national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
Hong Kong is constitutionally obliged to enact the controversial legislation, although the government’s previous attempt to introduce it in 2003 was shelved after half a million people took to the streets in protest.
“Hong Kong independence is a non-issue,” Civic Party chairman and former opposition lawmaker Alan Leong Kah-kit said. “All the government is trying to do is to create favourable conditions for Basic Law Article 23 legislation.”
Liberal legal scholar and Occupy movement leader Benny Tai Yiu-ting said dissolving a party should only be a last resort as the ordinance made it clear the government had to prove the ban was “necessary”.
He described the HKNP as having little political influence, and argued that a judicial review of the government’s action could halt any further crackdown on other pro-independence groups before a final decision on the ban was made.
“The government wants to send a clear political message to other independence groups,” Tai said.
Saturday’s turnout was a far cry from the 2003 mass rally against national security legislation. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organised the march from Southorn Playground to police headquarters in Wan Chai, estimated 1,200 people had joined, while police put the figure at about 600.
Deputy front convenor Au Nok-hin conceded that the HKNP’s independence stance may have deterred people from joining the march, but he insisted parties across the political spectrum were united against any move threatening freedom of association.
HKNP founder Andy Chan Ho-tin declined an invitation to attend the rally. About 20 pro-independence activists from the Student Independence Union and Studentlocalism joined the march, chanting slogans such as “Hong Kong independence” and “support Chan Ho-tin”.
The protest was largely peaceful, although at one point shouting broke out between rival protesters as the marchers came within five metres of a smaller rally by around 40 anti-independence protesters. Police barriers kept the two sides well apart.
Separately, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said it was worried that multiple media interviews with Chan and news reports used as evidence might adversely affect press freedom.
Interviews or reports on independence groups could be viewed as “assisting moves to endanger national security”, the group warned, urging the government to address such concerns.
“This incident has nothing to do with press freedom whatsoever,” a spokesman for the Security Bureau said.