Dismay over pro-China hounding of Hong Kong scholar

A group of Hong Kong scholars has expressed concern over a barrage of criticism from pro-China groups against a Hong Kong law scholar, which they say is the most serious against an academic in recent years.

Hong Kong’s Scholars’ Alliance for Academic Freedom, in a statement issued on 5 April, expressed “deep concern” that the Hong Kong government, Beijing government representatives and Hong Kong legislators have recently attacked University of Hong Kong Associate Professor of Law Benny Tai over purported remarks on Hong Kong independence.

“We are disturbed to observe that Mr Tai’s speech and idea have been deliberately twisted for the purpose of a new round of political persecution against him,” the statement read.

The scholars have urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to take the incident into consideration in the Universal Periodic Review on Hong Kong.

The attacks came after Tai, one of the leaders of the 2014-15 Occupy Central pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which was later called the Umbrella Movement, spoke at an event in the Taiwan capital Taipei on 25 March organised by a Taiwan pro-independence organisation.

Tai suggested that some day “in a democratic China” different groups (such as Taiwan and Hong Kong) “could consider going independent, being part of a federal system or a confederation system similar to that of the European Union”.

Experts note Beijing fears the formation of any sort of alliance between groups advocating self-determination or independence in Hong Kong and Taiwan – China regards Taiwan as a renegade province of China – but note that the seemingly coordinated high-level attacks, including calls for Tai to be stripped of his teaching post at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), which came in quick succession in late March and early April, are highly unusual.

Barrage of attacks

Tai was condemned by the Hong Kong government; some 40 pro-establishment Hong Kong legislators; China’s Communist Party through its party organ The People’s Daily; the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) under the State Council in Beijing, which is China’s central government department responsible for Hong Kong; China’s permanent liaison office in Hong Kong; and a Hong Kong deputy to the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, China’s legislative body.

A Hong Kong government spokesperson said on 30 March that the Hong Kong government “is shocked by the remarks by a university teaching staff member that Hong Kong should consider becoming an independent state and strongly condemns such remarks”.

The Chinese Communist Party organ The People’s Daily called on the Hong Kong government to take legal action against Tai under Hong Kong’s existing criminal law.

“While there is no precedent of punishing separatists, an absence of precedent does not mean there is no law to tackle [advocating] Hong Kong independence,” the People’s Daily commentary read, adding the Hong Kong government “should not tolerate people like Tai who advocate Hong Kong independence and initiate actions that mess up Hong Kong, and should look into his illegal acts to manifest the rule of law”.

Spokespersons from the HKMAO and China’s central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong said they supported any efforts by the Hong Kong government to “regulate” by law such “terrible acts” such as espousing independence, without elaborating what these laws might be.

Several other groups including 41 pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmakers said Tai should be dismissed from his university post. Some 70 cross-border organisations grouped under the pro-Beijing Federation of Hong Kong Shenzhen Associations ran newspaper advertisements in Hong Kong and Shenzhen last week demanding Tai’s dismissal.

Tam Yiu-chung, a newly appointed member of the NPC Standing Committee, said on television: “If he [Tai] is teaching Hong Kong independence, he will mislead more youths,” and added, “Is it still appropriate for him [Tai] to remain at HKU? I hope HKU will consider this.”

He also said Tai’s remarks in Taiwan went beyond the scope of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

University of Hong Kong’s response

Timothy O’Leary, a staff representative on the HKU governing council, said in remarks to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper that the pro-Beijing camp was “trying to discredit Benny Tai, apparently in preparation for the [Occupy] trial and HKU’s response to it”.

Tai and other leading Occupy protesters are expected to appear before the courts in November to face a charge of “incitement to incite public nuisance” stemming from the 2014-15 unrest.

“What Tai said is not in any way in conflict with his role of professor of HKU,” O’Leary said, urging the university to stand firm against calls to dismiss Tai.

HKU Governing Council Chairman Arthur Li said Tai’s views were his own and did not represent those of the university. “If something is illegal, then we will follow up. If it is not illegal, then we do not have the authority to follow up,” he told local media.

Another HKU source said Tai’s remarks were not made while he was on the university’s campus but there was concern that Beijing was attempting to shut down campus discussions on independence. Hong Kong’s universities have informed heads of departments that in future they must get work visas for guest lecturers, even if they are only there for a single lecture and are not being paid.

Tai shocked

Although Tai and other academics involved in the 2014-15 movement faced a backlash from pro-China groups because of their Occupy role – Tai was a co-founder of the movement – he said he was shocked that his remarks had caused the Hong Kong government and China’s HKMAO and Beijing authorities to issue statements.

“It is a calculated plot against me … to [declare] that any discussion on Hong Kong independence – albeit not directly endorsing [it] – will not be allowed in society and universities,” Tai told Hong Kong radio.

Tai would not apologise for his remarks, which he argued were made in an academic context, but he feared the reactions from officials heralded a stronger clampdown on freedom of speech and academic freedom.

“It may be to pave the way for Article 23,” Tai suggested, referring to Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which states the Hong Kong government can enact laws on its own to prohibit “any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against the central government in Beijing.

A previous attempt to enact such a security law in Hong Kong failed in 2003 following mass protests – some 500,000 took to the streets.

Hong Kong’s current laws require proof of inciting violence or hatred for a sedition conviction.

Since the Legislative Council of Hong Kong elections last year, six elected pan-democratic law-makers – including several student leaders of the Occupy movement who were elected – have been forced out of the legislature, leaving pro-Beijing groups in control of the law-making body.

“We expressly oppose any attempt to distort the Basic Law (including Article 23) and the Hong Kong legal system” that might curb freedom of speech and thought, the Hong Kong Scholars’ Alliance for Academic Freedom said in its statement.