More than 1,000 protesters held a rally outside Hong Kong’s legislature on Saturday night to condemn what they called an orchestrated campaign by authorities to curb free speech with their criticism of controversial academic Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s recent remarks on independence for the city.
The Civil Human Rights Front and opposition lawmakers who organised the demonstration estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people had joined them in the public area outside the Legislative Council building in Admiralty. Police put the turnout at a more conservative 1,200.
Shouts of “Safeguard freedom of speech and academic freedom” and “Support Benny Tai” rang in the air as pan-democratic politicians took turns to address the protesters from the stage.
“Some asked why I crossed the red line and provoked Beijing,” Tai said in a speech greeted with loud applause. “I can only say: where is the red line?”
The University of Hong Kong law scholar argued that Beijing had redrawn its red line for the city over the years, as people were allowed to discuss the idea of separating Hong Kong from China in the past, but activists supporting self-determination were now being banned from running for election. Merely imagining Hong Kong’s future independence could get them into trouble, he warned.
“No leader will never die, no regime will never fall, no system will never change,” he continued, urging the public to carry on taking part in the city’s democracy movements and pushing for an end to “dictatorship”.
Tai is at the centre of a political storm, with both the local and central governments accusing him of advocating separatism after he suggested at an anti-Communist Party seminar in Taiwan last month that Hong Kong could “consider becoming an independent state” some day in a “democratic China”.
Protesters at Saturday’s rally, led by former opposition lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, also chanted slogans calling for an end to “one-party dictatorship” in China.
That was in response to a warning on Friday by Wang Zhimin, director of Beijing’s liaison office in the city, that anyone who opposed the party’s leadership was inviting “calamity” by committing a crime against the “one country, two systems” principle, under which Hong Kong is governed.
Among the protesters was Wai Chan, who took his nine-year-old son along.
“It is a suppression of freedom of speech,” he said of the attacks on Tai, adding that he was worried the next generation would not be allowed to speak their minds.
More radical localist protesters from the Hong Kong National Party and Hong Kong National Front held an openly pro-independence rally nearby, with about 50 people, student union members from City University and Chinese University taking part.
“Our group absolutely supports independence. We welcome any prosecution by the authorities,” National Front convenor Nam Tan said.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Friday rejected suggestions her administration was using the Tai controversy to pave the way for tougher national security legislation. But in a slight deviation from her previous remarks, she added that the government would have to “think seriously” about when to bring in laws to safeguard national security.
Lam had repeatedly said a “suitable atmosphere” would have to be created before pushing forward with law in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, which requires Hong Kong to put legislation in place against offences such as sedition and treason.
The last attempt to do so – in 2003 – was shelved after a massive public backlash fuelled by concerns that freedoms would be curbed.
The independence debate continued on Saturday, with Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole deputy to the nation’s top legislative body, saying the “suitable atmosphere” was already forming slowly as people were disturbed and concerned about Tai’s “daydreaming” about independence.
Another deputy, Ip Kwok-him, said the government was obliged to enact Article 23 regardless of Tai’s remarks.
“We all know that Tai is more than an ordinary scholar. He is one of the campaigners of the Occupy protests,” Ip said, referring to the 2014 civil disobedience campaign for greater democracy. “Isn’t it too naive to view his comments only as a matter of freedom of speech and academic freedom?”