Venues backing out of hosting the Democratic Party’s fundraising dinner was a private matter, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee has said when asked to comment on the pro-democracy party’s inability to find a locale for its event.

john lee
Chief Executive John Lee meets the press on September 5, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Speaking at a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lee did not respond directly when asked twice about the party having to scrap its plans – including about rumours that Executive Council members had played a role in the restaurants denying the party.

“Any organisation that wants to organise activities for their own is a matter for themselves. How successful they can do that is also a matter for themselves and how things can be arranged,” Lee said, speaking in English.

Responding to the question in Cantonese, he said: “private organisations arranging private activities is the matter of the private organisation. I have no comments regarding private activities.”

The chief executive’s comments came after the Democratic Party axed a fundraising dinner a day before it was scheduled to take place. The party had made a booking at a restaurant called Federal Cruise Banquet Centre, located in Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, for Monday night.

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According to the party, the restaurant said on Sunday that it had to undergo maintenance works due to windows broken when Super Typhoon Saola hit Hong Kong on Saturday.

Before that, a restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel that was originally meant to host the Democratic Party backed out on Thursday without citing a reason, the party said.

The Democratic Party is the city’s largest opposition party. Before a Beijing-decreed overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2021, the Democratic Party held seven seats in the 70-seat legislature.

Since the changes were implemented, which ensured that only “patriots” could run and reduced democratically elected seats to an enlarged legislature, the Democratic Party – as well as all other opposition parties – are no longer represented in the Legislative Council.

The Democratic Party
The Democratic Party. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The party has also said it has struggled to arrange meetings with top officials in recent years ahead of the Policy Address and the budget announcement, when political groups would traditionally be consulted by the government.

‘Unfounded’ rumours

Lo Kin-hei, the chairperson of the Democratic Party, told HKFP on Monday that around 200 people were expected to attend the party’s fundraising dinner that night. He said he believed the string of restaurant cancellations was no coincidence, and that the businesses may have faced “external pressure.”

Lo Kin-hei
Chairperson of the Democratic Party Lo Kin-hei. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

According to a source cited in a Ming Pao column published on Monday, an Executive Council member had intervened in the restaurants’ hosting of the Democratic Party.

Regina Ip, the convener of the Executive Council, said she had no knowledge of this.

“I am not aware of ExCo Members playing such a role,” Ip told HKFP in English via text message. “Such rumours are unfounded and extremely vicious.”

This is not the first time the Democratic Party has seen restaurants cancel their event bookings. In February, the party had to postpone its spring dinner after three venues cancelled on them. The last pulled out just two hours before the dinner, citing “urgent gas meter maintenance.”

See also: What is ‘soft resistance’? Hong Kong officials vow to take a hard line against it, but provide no definition

Last week, state-backed newspaper Wen Wei Po wrote in an editorial that the Democratic Party’s fundraising dinner was “likely a platform for the party to continue covertly promoting… illegal protest-related information.”

Society should stay vigilant against this “soft resistance,” the paper added.

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Hillary Leung is a journalist at Hong Kong Free Press, where she reports on local politics and social issues, and assists with editing. Since joining in late 2021, she has covered the Covid-19 pandemic, political court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial, and challenges faced by minority communities.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Hillary completed her undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at the University of Hong Kong. She worked at TIME Magazine in 2019, where she wrote about Asia and overnight US news before turning her focus to the protests that began that summer. At Coconuts Hong Kong, she covered general news and wrote features, including about a Black Lives Matter march that drew controversy amid the local pro-democracy movement and two sisters who were born to a domestic worker and lived undocumented for 30 years in Hong Kong.