Law professor Benny Tai has said a wave of recent attacks against him may be intended to pave the way for a tougher national security law to ban discussion of Hong Kong independence.

Authorities in Hong Kong and the mainland unleashed a wave of condemnation against Tai over the long weekend after he made a speech on the possibility of Hong Kong independence in Taiwan last week.

Tai, one of the founders of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests, attended a forum in Taiwan where he said that, should China become a democratic country, different groups in China can consider becoming independent countries, or parts of a federation or confederation.

benny tai free speech liaison office protest
Benny Tai (centre). Photo: InMedia.

The University of Hong Kong professor said he may have touched Beijing’s “red line” in the speech, but he said it was an academic discussion and he did not violate any laws.

The government then issued a rare statement last Friday saying that it was shocked by Tai’s remarks and strongly condemned them. The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing both issued statements condemning Tai. The overseas edition of state mouthpiece the People’s Daily printed a commentary urging the government to take actions against Tai, saying he violated the Crimes Ordinance’s section on seditious intention.

‘Chilling effect’

Tai hit back on an RTHK radio show on Monday saying that he did not violate any laws, and refused to apologise. He said he was being targeted in the authorities’ efforts to prevent speech related to Hong Kong independence. Using a Chinese idiom, he compared himself to a chicken being killed to scare monkeys.

“The red line is not set by law. The red line is set by [Beijing]’s will – so where is the freedom of speech for Hong Kong people?” he said. “I can only speculate that [Beijing] wants to create a chilling effect.”

“This is the Cultural Revolution – they demand an apology, do I have to do it in a street parade too? They want the university to fire me – then will there be freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities anymore?”

Tai added that he does not support independence.

He said he was shocked that a speech made overseas caused the government, the Liaison Office and Beijing authorities to issue statements: “It may be to pave the way for Article 23.”

Article 23
Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003.

Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that the Hong Kong government shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the central government, among others. Its legislation failed in 2003 following mass protests.

Tai said his speech would not have violated the 2003 version of the drafted bill: “If Article 23 makes a comeback, it would not be the same as the 2003 version, we should not be so naive to think that it would be the same.”

He speculated that Beijing may be managing expectations so that the law’s future incarnation can punish speech that the central government does not like.

Several groups held protests against Tai at HKU over the Easter holidays. The pro-democracy camp also led a march to the Liaison Office in Sai Wan on Monday in support of Tai.

benny tai free speech liaison office protest
Photo: InMedia.

The pro-democracy camp’s three major blocs – the Democratic Party, the Civic Party and the Professionals Guild – issued separate statements saying that they were against Hong Kong independence, but freedom of speech should be protected and “Cultural Revolution-style means” to take Tai’s comments out of context should be condemned.

The Progressive Lawyers Group said it believed that interpretations of Tai’s comments made by the government, pro-establishment political groups and media – who painted Tai as an advocate of Hong Kong independence – were “inappropriate and factually incorrect.”

benny tai free speech liaison office protest
Benny Tai. Photo: InMedia.

It added that the government is obligated to uphold freedom of speech and academic freedom under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights and the International Covenant on the Civil and Political Rights.

“The PLG believes that the accusations made by the Government against Prof. Tai not only fly in the face of these principles, but they also have a chilling effect on other academics and citizens in Hong Kong.”

“The PLG therefore urges the Government to retract its statement regarding Prof. Tai’s remarks, issue a public apology to him and cease its intimidation and attacks against him.”

benny tai free speech liaison office protest
Photo: InMedia.

Starry Lee, one of 41 pro-Beijing lawmakers who signed a joint statement criticising Tai, said Tai founded the Occupy protests and planned to coordinate voters in the Legislative Council and District Council elections. She said the government and HKU should take actions to look into his behaviour.

“He can’t just say that it was an academic discussion, and then the matter is dropped,” she said on Tuesday. “This is not in line with the public’s expectations of HKU and the government.”

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.