Beijing’s two departments in charge of Hong Kong affairs on Saturday threw their full weight behind the Hong Kong government’s public rebuke of a liberal academic and key leader of the 2014 Occupy protests who said the city could consider becoming an independent state when China becomes “democratic”.
The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) and the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong issued strongly worded comments to state news agency Xinhua condemning University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting after he spoke out at an event organised by a pro-independence organisation in Taiwan.
A HKMAO spokesman said it believed a “small number of people in Hong Kong have colluded with external separatist forces” to advocate the city’s independence.
“They have fully exposed their attempts to split the country and violated the national constitution, the Hong Kong Basic Law, and the relevant laws in Hong Kong. They are challenging the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’. Such activities must not be ignored or tolerated,” the spokesman said.
A liaison office spokesman said the “terrible acts” had seriously violated China’s constitution, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – the Basic Law – and other laws in the city.
Both spokesmen added that they firmly approved of and supported any efforts by the Hong Kong government to “regulate” such acts by law, without further elaborating.
Tai, one of the organisers of the 2014 Occupy movement that led to 79 days of road blockades in the name of fighting for greater democracy, said on Facebook that he was concerned by the forcefulness of the HKMAO’s response.
“For this I am extremely shocked,” he said on Saturday evening.
He stressed that his comments were “not new” and were “imaginations of the future”, which in his opinion did not violate any criminal laws.
“But under Hong Kong’s authoritarian rule, [the comments] were suddenly said to have violated the Basic Law … That is extremely worrying, if Hong Kong is in a state in which [words] can be incriminating,” Tai said.
The political storm stemmed from Tai’s remarks made earlier in the week at a seminar in Taipei organised by the Taiwan Youth Anti-Communist Corps. His words were subsequently widely reported – and condemned – by Beijing mouthpieces in Hong Kong several days in a row.
On Friday, a Hong Kong government spokesman said it was “shocked” that a HKU teaching staff member had said the city could consider becoming an independent state, adding that it “strongly condemns such remarks”.
On Saturday, Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank, said Beijing was concerned that pro-independence forces in Hong Kong and Taiwan would band together.
“The central government is particularly worried that the United States could make use of Taiwan to balance China’s influence,” he said.
The official condemnation was a way to reduce the influence of Tai’s remarks and demonstrate the determination of both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to safeguard national territory, he added.
Tai said he would continue to promote democratic ideals in a peaceful manner and without fear.
“I am a normal Hong Kong citizen with no official titles. I don’t belong to any political groups in or outside Hong Kong. I have always been alone – what I do and say, I bear all the responsibilities,” he said.
While HKU could not be reached for comment, the chairman of its governing council Arthur Li Kwok-cheung said Tai’s views were his own and did not represent those of the university. There was no obligation for the institution to react, he said on Sunday.
“If something is illegal then we will follow up, if it is not illegal then we do not have the authority to follow up.”
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Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a City University law professor, said it would be “wise” for Tai to retract his comments and apologise.
Leung, however, conceded that no laws in Hong Kong could be used to sanction him, especially since his comments were made outside of the city.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said the strong rebuke from authorities was aimed at “planting fear” in Hongkongers.
On Sunday, Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole deputy to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, said the issue was not about freedom of speech and advised HKU to consider whether Tai was still fit to teach.
“Is he attempting to link Taiwan independence with Hong Kong independence? If he is now teaching Hong Kong independence, he will mislead more youths and push them to a dead end. Is it still appropriate for him to remain at HKU? I hope HKU will consider this,” Tam said on a TV programme.
“[Tai] claims this is about freedom of speech but this is not related to freedom of speech at all. He is saying things that will endanger the country and Hong Kong. If he is not criticised, then what he’s saying is being condoned.”
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While Lau a day earlier said he saw no reason for the city to expedite national security legislation because of Tai’s remarks, Tam disagreed and said Tai’s comments proved Hong Kong should urgently implement Article 23 of the Basic Law to criminalise a series of acts including sedition, treason and subversion.
Tam’s comments in recent weeks had caused controversy when he said anyone calling for an end to “one-party dictatorship” would be at risk of being disqualified from running for local office. Beijing’s top man overseeing the city’s affairs later said he understood why Tam made those remarks but they were not “official statements”.
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung and Emily Tsang