Beijing wants tighter grip on Hong Kong activists

Foreign Correspondents’ Club the focus of Beijing’s ire after pro-independence speech

Andy Chan, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, surrounded by members of the media as he leaves the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong on Tuesday. Photograph: Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing has stepped up its demands for Hong Kong’s democratic movement to be brought to heel after an activist called for independence for the territory during a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC).

It's the latest sign of ebbing press freedom in Hong Kong, critics say, which reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 with promises of a high degree of autonomy. But there are growing signs that Beijing is keen to firmly impose its authority on the former British colony.

Zhang Xiaoming, who heads up the Chinese government's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said allowing Andy Chan, founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, to speak counted as an act of separatism.

“This incident has reminded us we have to reflect and review Hong Kong’s inadequacies in protecting national security,” Mr Zhang told reporters in Beijing.


In 2014, thousands of democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong shut down sections of the city for months as part of the “Umbrella” movement but failed to win concessions on universal suffrage.

Out of the pro-democracy movement arose the pro-independence movement that has particularly raised Beijing’s hackles.

Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam echoed Mr Zhang's warning when she repeated there was a need to introduce a national security law as outlined in article 23 of the territory's constitution, the Basic Law, but indicated there was no particular timetable yet. "So we must find the right time and create a good atmosphere to legislate," she said.


There have been calls from pro-Beijing factions to ban the Hong Kong National Party, which has called for the city's secession from China. This would be the first time the government has banned a political organisation in the 21 years since the handover of the territory from the UK to China.

Much of Beijing’s anger has been focused on the FCC and its allowing the talk by Mr Chan has been characterised in mainland Chinese media as an “external attack”.

Mr Zhang said the club was clearly aware of Mr Chan’s agenda and had ignored repeated advice from the Hong Kong government and the foreign ministry not to invite him to speak. “This is not some ordinary unfriendly gesture, or interference or provocative act. What is it? From a legal viewpoint, it is assisting incitement to split the country. To state its nature from a legal point of view, this is definitely unlawful,” Mr Zhang said.

Hong Kong lawmakers have stopped short of calling the FCC’s hosting of Mr Chan illegal, but it has caused outrage among the pro-Beijing faction in the territory, hundreds of whom demonstrated outside the FCC, an elegant and storied venue for journalists in downtown Hong Kong, which now also boasts a large corporate membership.

Pulled no punches

The FCC website went down this week, and the organisation believed it had been the victim of an attack.

Mr Chan's speech pulled no punches. "China is, by nature, as an empire, a threat to all free peoples in the world," Mr Chan, who was barred from being a legislative candidate in 2016, said in the speech,. which was carried live on Facebook.

He said there was no longer freedom of speech in Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is no longer that much different from China, and the international community has to acknowledge that,” he said.

The Global Times in Beijing carried an editorial critical of the FCC, saying the invitation to Mr Chan was "a typical way of external forces' interfering in the affairs of Hong Kong and all of China, which should be condemned and disclosed".

Former Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung, who was a target of the 2014 Umbrella protests, said the government should consider withdrawing its lease from the FCC, although there have been suggestions such an action could undermine confidence in Hong Kong as a freewheeling financial capital.

Alvin YH Cheung, a lawyer and an affiliated researcher at the US-Asia Law Institute at rNYU, said the controversy over Mr Chan’s speech was “the classic Beijing foreign interference playbook”.

‘Foreign interference’

“CY Leung claimed, back in the day, that the Umbrella Movement was the result of ‘foreign interference’; to this day he has produced not a scrap of evidence. What it suggests to me is that the uproar was wholly orchestrated by Beijing and its local proxies,” he said.

One FCC member, who asked to remain anonymous, said the club was the “fall guy” in the whole event. “It hasn’t done anything it hasn’t always done, but the climate in Hong Kong has changed. Hong Kong’s freedoms are being progressively eaten away by Beijing,” said the foreign correspondent.

“What is interesting is that the level of interest among the Hong Kong media and young people in Hong Kong is shatteringly large,” he said.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing