More than a thousand people gathered outside the Legislative Council building over the weekend to denounce what they described as the government’s efforts to stifle free speech in the city, staging the protest after authorities slammed a pro-democracy academic over remarks he made about Hong Kong’s political future.
During the demonstration, which was organized as a show of support for Occupy movement co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, participants chanted slogans for protection of free speech and called on universities to defend academic freedoms.
The pan-democratic camp, which organized the protest along with the Civil Human Rights Front, claimed a turnout of more than 2,000, while the police estimated the crowd at about 1,200 at its peak.
The rally, which began at 7 pm, came after the several authorities and pro-Beijing media outlets criticized Tai over comments he made recently at a forum in Taiwan and accused him of advocating Hong Kong independence.
At a seminar organized by the Taiwan Youth Anti-Communist Corps in Taipei on March 25, Tai, who is currently an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), is reported to have said, among other things, that if China’s authoritarian regime falls apart one day, Hong Kong could consider becoming independent.
The remarks by Tai, who was one of the co-founders of Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Movement, drew strong criticism from the establishment — including the Hong Kong government, Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, as well as Beijing’s media mouthpieces — all of which accused Tai of advocating Hong Kong independence.
At the rally Saturday night, protesters accused the government of orchestrating a coordinated campaign against Tai and trying to vilify him.
On Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told the media that it was she who agreed to issue an official condemnation statement against Tai on March 30 after she watched a YouTube clip in which Tai made his remarks.
In his defense, Tai told the crowd at the weekend rally that he had never advocated Hong Kong independence.
He criticized Lam for not giving him a chance to explain himself before she ordered the release of a government statement that sought to condemn him over perceived controversial remarks.
While saying that he fears the government’s suppression on freedom of speech can only get stronger, Tai tried to put a context to the remarks he made in Taiwan.
There is no permanent regime and unchangeable system, Tai said, prompting the crowd to shout in unison: “Hang in there!”, Apple Daily reports.
In a statement, the organizers expressed strong objection to incriminating anyone for his or her words, and called for a resolution to safeguard freedom of speech and academic freedom.
All parties should stick to the “one country, two systems” principle and stop oppressing academics, according to the statement.
Speaking to the protesting crowd, Dr. Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a barrister and a former lawmaker representing the legal community, said the strong criticism of Tai suggests the local legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, which prohibits treason, secession, subversion and political activities by foreign political bodies, could happen any time soon and therefore Hongkongers must unite together to protect the city from it.
Shortly before the rally ended at about 8:30 pm, the political figures on the stage each threw down to the ground a big chain to symbolize unification against authoritarianism.
In an interview afterward, Tai made it clear that he does not intend to retract his remarks, arguing that doing so would be tantamount to drawing a red line himself.
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