Does opposition to HK independence trump freedom of speech?

April 05, 2016 08:48
If Chan Ho-tin and other members of the new Hong Kong National Party are so naive, why is Beijing dignifying them with the suggestion that they are a huge threat to Hong Kong and the mainland? Photo: RTHK

The Hong Kong National Party, whose ideas of Hong Kong independence were weighed and dismissed by older and, presumably, wiser heads in previous years, nonetheless has succeeded in getting the attention of Chinese officials.

In the process, it has brought to the forefront discussion of freedom of speech in Hong Kong, a right clearly upheld by the Basic Law.

Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, said the formation of a party advocating independence had touched the bottom line of “one country, two systems” and could not be tolerated, since it had exceeded the bounds of free speech.

He made a distinction between speech and action, citing the act of establishing a political party, rather than mere advocacy of independence, as exceeding free speech.

However, this was a distinction that the official Chinese government agency involved, the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, refused to make.

It simply declared that it was “resolutely opposed to any statement or action advocating Hong Kong independence”, making it clear that there was no room for debate.

But there is a great difference between words and actions, and the Chinese government knows this well.

After Chen Shui-bian was elected president in Taiwan in 2000, Beijing’s official response, made through its Taiwan Affairs Office, was that it would “listen to his words and watch his actions”.

Thus, while the words might sound conciliatory, his actions might well belie them.

In Hong Kong, it seems, Chinese officials simply don’t want to hear any words in support of independence.

But that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t talk about it.

Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive and now a vice chairman of China’s top political advisory body, has urged people to speak up in opposition to independence, calling the idea “very naïve”.

It appears that Chinese officials, Tung included, are not encouraging a discussion; they just want a one-sided condemnation of the idea, without giving the other side a chance to elucidate, expound or defend its position.

That is to say, one side has freedom of speech, and the other side doesn’t.

It may well be that, as Tung said, independence has absolutely no benefits for Hong Kong.

But why not let people talk about it?

In fact, by issuing a statement condemning independence for Hong Kong, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office is, in fact, expressing its view on independence.

This ought to justify other people entering the discussion and providing views either for or against the idea.

But Chinese officials like to make sweeping statements and escalate all discussion to the level of sovereignty, thus in effect forbidding the other party to make a contrary argument.

Thus, Xinhua, the state news agency, condemned the newly proclaimed party and said it had “harmed the country’s sovereignty and security, as well as endangered the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong”.

Is Chinese sovereignty so fragile that it can be damaged by a handful of very naïve people?

What about the sovereignty of Britain, which allowed a referendum to be held regarding Scottish independence, or the sovereignty of Canada, which has allowed Quebec to vote on its possible separation?

Is Chinese sovereignty, which we are constantly told is supported by 1.3 billion Chinese people, so frail that it cannot even withstand some public discussion?

As for endangering the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, the root cause of the unrest in the city can be traced to distrust of the central government, and the Lee Bo case exemplifies it, in spades.

The downgrade of the credit rating outlook by Standard & Poor's for both the mainland and Hong Kong cannot be blamed on pro-independence sentiment.

It is entirely attributable to the question mark hanging over the future of Hong Kong brought about by Chinese actions and doubt regarding the rule of law in the territory.

If the central government is serious about supporting Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity, it should publicly explain its actions in the Lee Bo episode and pledge never to allow actions that undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy to ever happen again.

Beijing should realize that the Lee Bo case has greatly affected local confidence in the Hong Kong government.

After all, what the case highlighted was the inability of the local authorities to protect Hong Kong residents and to keep them from harm by the mainland.

But the likelihood of the central government coming clean on the Lee Bo case is as likely as the sun rising in the west every morning from now to 2047, when the Basic Law will expire.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.