By Venus Wu
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club resisted pressure from Chinese officials to cancel an event with an independence activist, provoking rebuke from the pro-Beijing establishment as it seeks to curb talks about independence in the city.
The club invited activist Andy Chan to speak at a luncheon next Tuesday, which drew strong criticism from China’s Foreign Ministry in the former British colony as well as current and former leaders.
A number of Reuters journalists are members of the FCC.
The FCC’s acting president, Victor Mallet, said China’s Foreign Ministry had made “representations to the club” regarding the event, without elaborating on what the ministry had said. The club was pressing ahead with the luncheon, he said.
“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 FCC said in a statement on Monday.
A former British colony, Hong Kong has come under Chinese rule since 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement that promises it a high degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in China, including free speech and a free press.
While China’s Foreign Ministry has an office in Hong Kong, its duty is limited to matters related to foreign affairs.
“We are firmly against the attempt of any external forces to provide a venue to the advocates for ‘Hong Kong independence’ to spread their nonsense,” a spokesperson from the office said in a statement on Sunday.
“With their open advocacy and engagement in separatist activities, the ‘Hong Kong independence’ forces have crossed the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’,” it added.
Chan has grabbed headlines in recent weeks after the government moved to ban his political party which advocates for the city’s secession from China, something Beijing deems an illegal challenge to its Communist Party rulers.
Chan, who is not charged of any crime and whose group has not yet been banned, said he appreciated the club’s move to stand by its decision.
“The Chinese government thinks Hong Kong is like mainland China, where you can ban foreign media and impose an information blackout,” Chan said.
“It is hard for local Hong Kong groups to stand firm like the FCC. The overall situation is very bad.”
The International Federation of Journalists condemned the Chinese government’s move, saying it is “a blatant attempt to stifle free speech in Hong Kong.”
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club regularly hosts luncheons at its premises, a refurbished 19th century ice house, where it invites a range of speakers, from officials from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to Tibet campaigners.
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Simon Cameron-Moore)