Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that she approved a government statement which described remarks by University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai as “shocking.” Lam said she had watched a YouTube video of his comments relating to independence filmed at a forum in Taiwan on March 24.

Last Friday, a rare government press release condemned Tai, saying that it was “shocked by the remarks… that Hong Kong could consider becoming an independent state.” But the statement did not include the full comments by Tai, who said that Hong Kong could consider the option – or join a federation or confederation of Chinese states – should China become a democratic country.

Following the government statement, Tai was attacked by pro-Beijing lawmakers, central government authorities and state media, with some saying that he should be investigated under the sedition intention section in the Crimes Ordinance, and be sacked from the university. Tai insisted he did not support independence and that it was an academic discussion.

Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Lam told reporters on Friday that the Hong Kong government and wider society have a responsibility to protect national security, as well as the territorial integrity and developmental interests of the country: “The SAR government has to consider thoroughly when to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law to protect national security.”

She said that any advocacy of Hong Kong independence, self-determination, or a form of federation is unacceptable, and violates the Chinese constitution and the city’s Basic Law.

“I watched his speech on YouTube myself, and I approved the government issuing the statement to condemn his remarks – this is exactly what I said just now; that the SAR government has the responsibility to ensure a correct understanding because it is a very serious matter,” she said.

Free speech

She denied claims that the government was restricting freedom of speech and academic freedom.

“We have no so-called goal of suppressing freedom of speech, and it does not involve academic freedom – we are also not using this matter for the legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, and are not announcing in advance tougher legislation of Article 23 of the Basic Law,” she said, adding that she must clarify incorrect messages.

When asked if Tai had violated any law, Lam said: “We did not take legal action, but of course it is not up to me to decide what laws he has violated, and it is not up to me to decide whether his teaching position at University of Hong Kong can be kept.”

She added that the government has been respecting the university’s self-governance, even though they were funded by the government. She said it has not done anything to influence Tai’s position at the school: “It must be handled by the University of Hong Kong itself.”

Tai said he was disappointed by Lam’s comments: “As an official in power for years, the chief executive should know the negative impact on the person targeted by the condemnation statement. Since the statement was issued by the government on March 30, it has caused great damage to my reputation and my mind, and it has threatened Hong Kong people’s thought, speech and academic freedom.”

He said the government never gave him any chance to answer the accusations before the statement was issued: “This is a violation to the principle of procedural justice.”

Benny Tai. File photo: In-Media.

“Please point out how my remarks that day constituted an advocacy of Hong Kong independence and self-determination. Does it mean, if people think about or discuss possibilities for the future of China and Hong Kong, they are already advocating Hong Kong independence and self-determination?” he said.

He added that he had made similar, and more comprehensive, remarks in local newspapers over the past few years: “However, the government did not have any opinion in the past – does it mean that my overall viewpoint does not violate the constitution or the Basic Law? Did the government take my words out of context in issuing the condemnation statement based on a short speech on the day of the forum?”

“Many people in Hong Kong directly and clearly support Hong Kong independence and self-determination, why hasn’t the government ever issued condemnation statements for them? Is there a political motivation for the statement targeting me?” he said. “Why did the government issue a rare, strong statement against remarks made by a common resident overseas? Was there any unspeakable political reason?”

Meanwhile, the Civil Human Rights Front and pro-democracy lawmakers will host a rally in support of Tai at 7pm on Saturday at the Legislative Council demonstration area.

Kris Cheng

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.