Journalists in Hong Kong defy gov't request to cancel speech

HONG KONG — A journalists' association in Hong Kong says it will defy the Chinese government and follow through with a planned speech by a pro-independence activist that has become a mounting political flashpoint in the city.

China's foreign ministry asked the Foreign Correspondents Club this month to cancel a talk by Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party. The request raised questions about Beijing's growing influence in the former British colony, which was promised semi-autonomy and freedom of speech as part of a 1997 handover arrangement.

Current and former Hong Kong leaders have criticized the FCC for hosting Chan, whose party is facing a possible ban on national security grounds.

The FCC said in a statement Monday it believes its members and the public have the right "to hear the views of different sides in any debate" and will continue with the event.

"We believe that in free societies such as Hong Kong it is vitally important to allow people to speak and debate freely, even if one does not agree with their particular views," the club statement said.

The 75-year-old organization has previously hosted politicians and newsmakers, including pro-Beijing speakers, at its iconic clubhouse in central Hong Kong. It is set to host Chan on Aug. 14 for a talk titled "Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule."

The perception that Beijing is reneging on its promise and eroding Hong Kong's free elections and freedom of speech is helping fuel a rising generation of young activists calling for greater autonomy, if not outright independence.

Huge pro-democracy protests erupted in 2014 in response to the decision by China's ruling Communist Party to retain the right to effectively pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong's leadership.

The movement has been met with repeated warnings from Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, that separatist activity would not be tolerated.

Hong Kong police have told Chan, 27, that he has until Sept. 4 to provide a legal defense of the HKNP or else it will be disbanded under a 1997 ordinance that allows authorities to shut down groups deemed an imminent threat to national security.

Hong Kong officials have dismissed the FCC's argument that Chan's appearance amounts to a free speech matter, with the territory's former chief executive C.Y. Leung equating the FCC event with giving a platform to "criminals and terrorists."

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam told reporters on Sunday that it was "inappropriate" for the FCC to host Chan and asked the organization to respect that Hong Kong is an unalienable part of China.

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