Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club Under Threat

An obscure, two-year old Hong Kong political party advocating independence from the mainland has morphed overnight into an “imminent threat” to China’s national security. The Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) has a claimed membership of 30. It has no elected representative.

Until Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu asked the party to explain why it shouldn’t be banned, few were aware it existed. But it risks causing the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club to lose its government-owned quarters.

The story began when Hong Kong’s police displayed an 86-page document, 21 discs and 706 pages of transcripts from surveillance of the speeches and media interviews given by the party’s leader, Andy Chan Ho-tin, and his fellow activists.

The HKNP has until Sep. 4 to reply. The police claim “concrete evidence” that the party wants independence “using whatever effective means.” The guardians intend to save Hong Kong from such evil, by proscribing it.

Enter the FCC

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, ever keen to host a lively debate, invited Chan to speak on Aug. 14. The talk is titled “Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule.” Chan planned to trace the territory’s political evolution since the handover and its Hong Kong-identity phenomenon, which for a sizable number of the territory’s residents equates to deep antipathy to mainland rule.

A representative of China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong visited the Club to counsel against hosting Andy Chan. The club restated its policy of being an open forum for interesting speakers, and to host debates for or against any idea. The Club’s press statement repeats its long-held, consistent positions.

Hong Kong’s former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and current chief executive Carrie Lam have both spoken at FCC luncheons. For its June event featuring pro-democracy professors Benny Tai and Kenneth Chan, the club invited several establishment figures to participate. None accepted the opportunity to present their case, or to join the debate.

Big guns boom

When Chan surfaced as a speaker, Leung turned Rottweiler on the FCC. In an open letter to acting president Victor Mallet on his Facebook page, CY charged that the FCC, in the name of free speech and press freedom, could host “criminals and terrorists.” He was referring to independence advocates in Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and the HKNP. Andy Chan’s FCC date is about three weeks ahead of his likely state-administered reset from quixotic to outlaw.

Carrie Lam expressed regret at the “inappropriate” FCC invitation. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Aug. 3 to “resolutely oppose any external forces providing a platform for 'Hong Kong independence' elements to spread fallacies."

Chan may yet be hoisted by official hysteria to rank alongside the Dalai Lama, long denounced as the Tibet “splittist.” Bewildered by the media wave sweeping him from obscurity to global fame, Chan confessed his astonishment to the New York Times: “They keep suppressing us, and now we’re on the news, even international news!”

Veiled threat

Leung accused the FCC of paying only a token rent for the lease of its prime premises in a historic government-owned landmark building on Albert Road in the city’s central district. He could have checked his facts but didn’t. Carrie Lam corrected Leung, saying the FCC pays a commercial ‘market rate’ without a public auction. She should know. Carrie was Secretary for Development when the FCC lease was negotiated in 2007. The property, a onetime cold-storage warehouse for ice and dairy products, stands on one of the most expensive pieces of land in a city whose property prices are astronomical.

The government confirmed that the FCC pays HK$580,000 per month (HK$6.96 million per annum), in addition to funding all renovation and repairs to the heritage property. Leung scrambled to find a copy of the FCC lease through his network but failed. He has challenged the FCC to disclose the terms of its lease, and called on the government to open it to public auction. The current lease of seven years expires in 2023. The FCC declined to engage Leung on this, as the lease was irrelevant to the principle of free speech.

999-year lease, anyone?

The ill-informed attempt to savage the FCC lease will trigger queries about many clubs, NGOs, ‘patriotic’ outfits and other institutions that lease government buildings and heritage sites all over the territory and that could come into conflict with the government. David Webb, the shareholder activist, revealed on his website on Aug. 6 that the longest lease in all China is held by the United States Consulate on Garden Road – extended in 1999 by then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, for 999 years at HK$44 million. Webb estimates its current value at HK$7.7 billion.

Red lines clash

This may be a pivotal moment for Hong Kong, the FCC and Andy Chan. A tipping point has been reached and the game will reconfigure. Beijing’s red lines are territorial sovereignty and the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Hong Kong’s red lines are freedom of speech, freedom of press, accountability of government, and the rule of law – “guaranteed” until 2047. The inherent contradictions of One Country, Two Systems collide all the way. Where tested, Beijing has and will prevail.

The noise level on Andy Chan and the bizarre choreography to rub out the minuscule HK National Party are designed to entrench the concept of taboo topics. That can lead step-by-step, to the totalitarian principle of the state deciding what is approved social conversation in the public sphere. It is all there in plain sight, on the motherland.