Hong Kong No 2 highlights ‘cordial relationship’ with FCC as lawmakers demand it is punished for hosting talk by separatist Andy Chan
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung reacts after former leader Leung Chun-ying warns independence movement could gain momentum and 32 politicians call for FCC to be kicked out of its government-owned premises
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung highlighted the “cordial relationship” that existed between the Hong Kong government and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC), as pro-establishment lawmakers called on the administration to kick it out of its government-owned premises for hosting a talk by separatist Andy Chan Ho-tin.
Hong Kong’s No 2 official, who was acting as the city’s chief on Tuesday as Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor headed to Beijing, said the government would not cut its ties with the FCC, and took a measured tone when he spoke to the press after Chan’s speech.
He reiterated the government’s belief that the FCC’s decision to host the talk by the convenor of the Hong Kong National Party was “deeply regrettable, unacceptable and inappropriate”, but said the relationship between the two would not change.
“[The government] has a cordial relationship with FCC and I’m sure this relationship will continue,” he said.
“There’s no question of us ceasing [our working] relationship with FCC at all, I don’t see this as a question we should consider at the moment, or in fact in the future.”
Cheung said he listened to Chan’s speech, but declined to say which part he thought amounted to an advocacy for independence.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs last month said it opposed the club’s decision to offer Chan a platform, and accused the FCC of abusing press freedom and freedom of speech.
On Tuesday, it accused the FCC of interfering in the city’s rule of law, as the process to ban Chan’s party is ongoing. Hong Kong’s security minister said last month he was considering a police recommendation to ban the party for being an “imminent threat” to national security.
The club’s premises in the Central district of the city has become the centre of attention since the row erupted, with Hong Kong’s former leader, Leung Chun-ying, daring the club to give up its lease and bid for it on the open market instead.
Leung warned that the pro-independence movement in Hong Kong could gain momentum.
“Those advocating for independence will seek to break out, then to survive … quietly waiting for a chance,” he said, citing Taiwan as an example. “Should we give Chan Ho-tin a chance?”
The former chief executive said the FCC “blatantly” provided a stage for Chan in the name of freedom of speech.
He also implied that the pro-independence movement in Hong Kong is fuelled by foreign forces, but did not elaborate further.
A statement signed by 32 pro-establishment lawmakers on Tuesday accused the club of having “given up” on its morals, and added it could have broken local laws by hosting the talk.
“We think it is unreasonable for the club to use freedom of speech as a shield,” the statement read.
The statement, however, did not specify what laws the club had broken.
In a press event held at the Legislative Council soon after the club’s talk, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong legislator, said the government should consider terminating the current lease and immediately review its terms.
“[The government] should not allow any premise to rent or host events for people to advocate for Hong Kong independence,” said Priscilla Leung, who sits on a committee on the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
By inviting Chan to speak, Priscilla Leung said the club could have violated the mini-constitution, which states Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
Asked if the government would take back the building, Cheung would only say the terms of the lease dictated that the “occupants should abide by Hong Kong law”.
“So, we will urge the FCC to abide by Hong Kong law,” he said.
Pan-democrat lawmakers also issued a statement signed by 24 of them, criticising Cheung for dealing an unprecedented blow to the city’s press freedom.
They also strongly condemned the pro-Beijing camp for seeking the removal of the club from its current premises, saying this suggestion was “humiliating”.
“FCC is a key communication channel between the local and foreign media and the club has also paid market rent for the building,” the statement read.
Alice Lee Suet-ching, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in property law, said it was “impossible” for the government to end the FCC’s lease by accusing it of breaking the law, or contravening the terms of its contract.
“Even assuming Chan’s speaking of independence was illegal – which it is not – all the FCC did was to host a talk, where the speaker represented himself [with opinions] which the club does not endorse,” said Lee. It was not as if the FCC was hosting an “establishment ceremony of an independence party”, she said.
“Assuming the terms prescribed that the purpose of the lease was to hold talks according to the law, today’s talk is exactly what the FCC is supposed to do,” she said.
According to the government, the building in Central is on a seven-year lease until 2023 and the club pays market rent, amounting to HK$580,000 monthly.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said the pro-establishment camp was blowing the incident “out of proportion”.
“The FCC held firm to its principles of protecting freedom of speech and letting different views be heard,” Wu said.
He also said most people in the city did not care about the concept of Hong Kong independence.
“The biggest mover [of the notion] is Leung Chun-ying, the pro-establishment camp and the government,” Wu said.
University of Hong Kong legal scholar, Eric Cheung Tat-ming, said he was “disappointed” with lawmakers’ comments that the club had violated the Basic Law.
“It sounds like they do not understand the Basic Law,” Eric Cheung said.
While Chan’s speech may contain ideals in contradiction with the Basic Law, Eric Cheung said making such a speech was not a criminal offence, and was within the bounds of freedom of speech.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association said the chief secretary’s remarks that it was unacceptable for the FCC to give Chan a platform to espouse separatist views could effectively ban people with a specific political view from appearing on media programmes, and further erode press freedom and free speech.
The association called on the government to say which laws people would break for making separatist remarks, and to clarify whether media outlets would be prosecuted for quoting, interviewing or inviting separatists on their shows or publishing their comments.