HONG KONG — A tiny political party in Hong Kong has emerged as one of the city’s most discussed political topics thanks to government efforts to ban it and cancel a public talk by its founder.
The organization, the Hong Kong National Party, has called for the territory’s independence from China. It has no elected lawmakers and a small membership, but last month the authorities in Hong Kong moved to ban it under a colonial-era law that allows the prohibition of groups for reasons of national security, public safety and public order.
That move raised questions about growing restraints on political freedom in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory. As the government seeks to curtail people’s ability to advocate for ideas like greater autonomy or even independence, it has added to concerns about a deteriorating environment for free speech in Hong Kong.
Andy Chan, the founder of the party, which claims at most a few dozen members, said that the crackdown had given it an unexpected lift.
“They keep on suppressing us, and now we’re on the news, even international news,” he said.
The ban would be the first use of the public-security ordinance against a political party since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. The law is typically used to crack down on organized crime.
As they wait for the party’s response, due by Sept. 4, the authorities have moved to further isolate the group, with China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong not to host a talk next week by Mr. Chan.
The club has said it intends to go ahead with the Aug. 14 event, called “Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule,” and Mr. Chan said he still planned to participate.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s board of governors said Monday that the public had the right, and journalists had the responsibility, to hear different sides of any debate.
“Hosting such events does not mean that we either endorse or oppose the views of our speakers, who have included senior officials of the Chinese, Hong Kong and other governments as well as their opponents, and we will continue to welcome speakers with widely differing points of view in the future,” the group said in a statement.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, said Sunday that such a talk was “completely unsuitable.” She added that the decision of whether to hold it was up to the club, but called it “unfortunate” and “regrettable.”
Leung Chun-ying, Ms. Lam’s predecessor from 2012 to 2017, criticized the FCC in an open letter he posted late Saturday on Facebook, saying that the talk had “nothing to do with press freedom” and that the club “most probably would not draw any line against criminals and terrorists.”
Mr. Leung raised the question of what he called a “token rent” the club pays the government for the historic building it occupies in Hong Kong’s Central district.
Mr. Leung said the rent was a sign of the government’s support for the club and freedoms of speech and the press. But Mr. Chan and others took that mention as a veiled threat to raise the rent or even oust the club from the building.
Ms. Lam, however, said the organization had paid market rent rates since 1982.
Francis Moriarty, a former FCC board member, said that when he left the board three years ago the club paid about $77,700 a month in rent, and that it had invested huge sums in renovating, maintaining and improving the 19th-century building, the former site of a cold-storage warehouse for a dairy.
The club traces its origins to an association of correspondents and photographers founded in Chongqing, China, during World War II to lobby the Nationalist government for better media access. Many foreign journalists belong, including several members of The New York Times staff. The club now counts many nonjournalists among its numbers — Mr. Leung was one himself once — and its clubhouse is a well-known spot for eating and drinking in downtown Hong Kong.
But it maintains a key role on free speech issues, speaking up for imprisoned journalists, criticizing restrictive policies around the region and offering a venue for events that might have trouble being booked elsewhere in the city.
“The club has been threatened in the past — both in the colonial and post-handover eras — and we have stood by our principles of free speech and free association,” Mr. Moriarty wrote on Facebook. “It is good to see that the FCC is resisting the current pressure upon it.”
In 2009, China’s Foreign Ministry complained to the group about a planned talk by Kate Saunders, communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet, saying that someone to represent the Chinese government’s view should be included. A pro-Beijing speaker never emerged, and the event was delayed but went ahead with Ms. Saunders speaking on her own.
Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, when democracy advocates occupied major intersections of Hong Kong for nearly three months, activists have found their ability to speak out increasingly restrained here.
Joshua Wong, one of the protest leaders, was barred last year from a talk at the Asia Society in Hong Kong. Ronnie Chan, a billionaire property developer and the society’s co-chairman, said the group should avoid political conflicts.
The event that included Mr. Wong was moved to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Mr. Wong himself did not attend the rescheduled event, skipping it to join a protest.
Orignially published in NYT.