Andy Chan, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, poses for a photograph in Hong Kong, China. (Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong Bans Pro-Independence Party in Unprecedented Decision

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s government issued an unprecedented ban against a pro-independence political party that it has called a risk to national security, raising concerns over tolerance of dissent in the Asian financial hub.

“The Hong Kong National Party has a very clear agenda to achieve its goal of Hong Kong being made an independent republic,” John Lee, the city’s security secretary, said at a briefing on Monday. The party could use force to achieve its goal and had spread “hatred and discrimination” against Chinese visitors to Hong Kong, he said.

The decision risks fanning fears the city’s administration wants to set a precedent for clamping down on other opposition groups, eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework in place since Chinese rule began in 1997. It may also lay the groundwork to revive a shelved national security law prohibiting secession and subversion.

The ban represents the latest attempt to squelch the small movement that sprung up after mass “Occupy Central” protests in 2014 failed to win any democratic reforms. In 2016, the Chinese government reinterpreted local law to ban such activists from public office. Local officials this year barred a legislative candidate because she supported “self-determination.”

“The decision could have a chilling effect that stifles democratic debate on a topic that is not an illegal act per se under current legislation,” said Chris Ng, a convener of the Progressive Lawyers’ Group, which promotes democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong.

The government’s actions may be unconstitutional and could be challenged for violating Hong Kong’s right to freedom of association under the city’s laws, Ng said. Local journalists were calling him to ask if it would be illegal to publish an article by Chan, Ng said, adding that he told them it would be legal as long as Chan said he wasn’t acting as a member of the National Party.

The ban came ten days after the National Party submitted a case to the government arguing why it shouldn’t be suppressed. “I can’t comment at the moment,” Chan said Monday in a text message.

It was unclear whether Chan would take legal action to oppose the ban. Earlier this month, he dropped an appeal against a previous government decision to stop him from running in 2016 legislative council elections because he couldn’t afford to fight on, the South China Morning Post reported.

Hong Kong police had threatened to ban the National Party in July, accusing it of taking concrete steps toward realizing the city’s independence. China later warned the Foreign Correspondents’ Club that it risked repercussions for hosting Chan to speak about the potential ban. The club’s members include journalists from Bloomberg and other news organizations.

The FCC invitation prompted pro-Beijing protesters to gather outside the club’s premises, and criticism from Hong Kong’s former leader. China’s foreign ministry accused the FCC of abusing the former British colony’s right to free speech by giving Chan a platform.

At the lunch, Chan denounced China as a “colonial master,” and compared the administration’s effort to ban his party to campaigns to suppress political opposition in democratically run Taiwan and China’s regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Chan wrote to the U.S. Department of State in September, calling on Washington to suspend the differential treatment on trade between Hong Kong and mainland China under the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act. Chan said such a move would be warranted due to the erosion of the city’s autonomy and freedom under Chinese rule.

Kurt Tong, the U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong, dismissed Chan’s call and reaffirmed the “very good relationship” between Washington and the city’s government, the South China Morning Post reported.During a visit to Hong Kong last year, President Xi Jinping warned that any challenge to China’s rule was “an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible.”

China’s central government firmly supports Hong Kong’s right to punish any crimes that endanger national security, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday, citing a spokesman from China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing.

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