Until a few weeks ago, the calendar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Hong Kong was dominated by events like “Artificial Intelligence – The New Global Arms Race” and “Resurgent or Turbulent Indonesia,” along with a few wonky talks about the state of freedoms in Hong Kong.
Then, last month the Hong Kong police recommended that a tiny group, the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, be denied the right to register as a political party, effectively banning the outfit. That would be the first such move against an organization since Hong Kong was handed back to China from Britain in 1997, so naturally the club invited the party’s young leader, Andy Chan, to speak about his political ideology.
Before long, China’s Communist Party and pro-Beijing forces in the city had overreacted so thoroughly that many more people began paying attention to Chan and his ideas than otherwise would have ever heard of him.
First, China’s foreign ministry asked the FCC to cancel the talk, which was scheduled for today. Then, none other than the unpopular former chief executive Leung Chun-ying—sometimes jokingly called “the father of Hong Kong independence” for his uncanny ability to stoke support for pro-independence ideas with his hawkish stance—weighed in.
In a Facebook post, Leung said the invitation under the “guise of press freedom” was crossing “an absolute and clear red line.” Advocating for independence is essentially advocating for separatism, Leung wrote. In subsequent posts, Leung said the FCC “probably will not draw any line against criminals and terrorists,” and asked if the club would also invite Nazis and Holocaust deniers to speak.
Well before the day of Chan’s talk, the FCC event was fully booked and rumors were rife that Chan could be detained before the presentation, sparking protests. More than one publication provided running tweets about the small pro-China protest taking place outside the club, located in the city’s Central area. Once again, Hong Kong’s Beijing-allied leaders ran a much better public relations campaign than zealous believers for a cause that most Hong Kongers believe to be utterly quixotic.
Chan made the most of the moment, delivering an address that was long on rhetorical flourishes but short on ideas about how a Hong Kong free of China could come to exist or function, given its location.
“Time and again, our government has shown that whatever ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ they claim to be upholding are but Communist mirages,” said Chan, who looks more like the engineering-and-business major he was, than a revolutionary. “The situation is so dire that we dare say that Hong Kong has never experienced such horrid colonialism until 1997,” he added.
Chan criticized China as an empire that wants all its dominions to assimilate, and has no tolerance for different political or cultural outlooks. For minority groups like the Uyghurs of Xinjiang or the Tibetans, “you get sent to one of these re-education camps where dying is better than living,” said Chan. His remarks came just a day after a UN human rights committee queried China on what it called “credible” allegations that a million ethnic Uyghurs were being detained in such camps. “These camps have not appeared here yet but the will of China is the same,” Chain said. “If you are different you are wrong.”
Inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests for universal suffrage in Hong Kong’s leadership elections, Chan started distributing leaflets with friends under the name Common Sense, a reference to Thomas Paine, who advocated in the 18th century for American freedom from Britain. Ahead of the 2016 legislative elections, he changed the outfit’s name to Hong Kong National Party. The party’s candidates were not allowed to run.
Interest in independence hasn’t been a long-standing feature of Hong Kong’s post-handover political life. But the cause gained a bigger following as the former chief executive Leung, who was succeeded by Carrie Lam last year, harshly critiqued people and outfits associated with nationalist ideas. For example, after Leung blamed a little-known University of Hong Kong student magazine, Undergrad, for spreading “anarchy” in a 2015 address, people went out of their way to read its articles.
There are real risks to expressing support for independence, despite the greater rights of free speech Hong Kong has compared with the mainland. The Basic Law says that Hong Kong is an unalienable part of China, which means that independence advocates are going against a document that serves as a mini-constitution for the city, enshrining its political autonomy.
Meanwhile, the best-known activist associated with the independence movement, Edward Leung, organizer of a political group called Hong Kong Indigenous, is currently serving a six-year prison term. That’s for a rioting conviction related to violence in the city’s Mong Kong area during the Lunar New Year in 2016—but supporters believe his political beliefs had some bearing on the length of his sentence.