‘Regrettable and inappropriate’, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says of Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk by separatist leader Andy Chan
But contrary to remarks by Leung Chun-ying, who said the club rented its premises from the government at ‘token price’, chief executive says the lease has always been at market rate
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has weighed in on the controversy surrounding the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) for inviting the founder of a separatist party to give a talk, describing the move as “regrettable and inappropriate”.
Her remarks on Sunday came after her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, stepped up his attacks on the FCC late on Saturday night, arguing that the club’s move to invite Hong Kong National Party founder Andy Chan Ho-tin – despite objection from Beijing – had “nothing to do with press freedom”.
Leung reminded the club that its iconic building in Central was actually rented from the government “at a token price”.
But in an apparent attempt to clarify Leung’s remarks, Lam on Sunday said the government had been leasing the premises to the club since 1982 at market rate.
Victor Mallet, the FCC’s first vice-president, also refuted Leung’s claims, saying the club paid “substantial rent”, even “much more” than others in the city.
The row erupted two days earlier when China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the FCC to cancel a talk by Chan. The request by the ministry’s office in the city was turned down by the club, which intends to go ahead with the event on August 14.
Chan’s party is facing a possible government ban for being an “imminent threat” to national security.
Lam said on Sunday: “We find it a pity and regrettable that some organisation has insisted on holding an event on the theme of Hong Kong independence and Hong Kong nationalism.”
“It may be up to the organisation to decide whether it is appropriate [to hold such an event], but to the government and the chief executive, it is inappropriate for sure,” she added.
“As we have a lot of respect for international media ... and we welcome them working here in Hong Kong, we have been renewing the lease with [the FCC] over the past few decades instead of allowing them to rent the place through a public auction – but they are charged at market rate.
“We respect ... the activities of the FCC in Hong Kong, and I hope our friends in the FCC would also respect Hong Kong as an inalienable part of China.”
On the issue of Chan’s group advocating Hong Kong independence, Lam said: “My position – and that of the government – has been very firm and without any ambiguity. We would not tolerate and would restrain any attempt to call for separatism ... in accordance with the law.”
She added that it was unsuitable for her to comment further especially when she, alongside her cabinet the Executive Council, would look into the case if Chan’s party was banned and he filed an appeal.
In response to Lam’s comments, Chan said the FCC invited him solely from a journalistic perspective and slammed her remarks as an attempt to intervene in press freedom, a move he claimed would affect the city’s international image.
He also said Lam’s remarks on the FCC premises sounded like a “threat” implying the government would take action if the club refused to comply with Beijing.
FCC’s Mallet said he was aware of Lam’s statements but would not comment further until after a board meeting on Monday.
“We have no plans to cancel or postpone the [talk by Chan] but we do take note of her comment,” he told the Post.
He stressed that the club “welcomed all points of view”, and had no political stance, neither endorsing nor opposing the opinions of speakers at its events.
Mallet also refuted Leung’s claim that the premises were leased at a token rate.
“We pay a very substantial rent to the government. It is also a historic building maintained at our expense even though we lease it from the government,” he said. “In fact I believe we pay much more than many clubs in Hong Kong.”
Earlier on Saturday, Leung, now a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top advisory body, had echoed Beijing’s call, saying the FCC “could not invite whoever they want, to talk about whatever they want”.
Leung later issued an open letter on the same day to Mallet. In the letter, posted on his Facebook page, Leung said: “Press freedom is a core value that Hong Kong treasures so much, so that the government of Hong Kong leased to the club at a token rent the building on Ice House Street in Central. Not many organisations in Hong Kong have received from the government this kind of support,” Leung wrote.
“Ironically, I presume these premises will be exactly where Andy Chan has been invited to present his case for Hong Kong independence.”
The former leader also said he was “gravely concerned” about Mallet’s take on freedom of speech as that effectively meant the club would not “draw any line against criminals and terrorists”.
Last month, Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said he was considering a police recommendation to ban the Hong Kong National Party under the Societies Ordinance.
The party now has until September 4 to argue its case against the force’s proposal.