Chan, who leads the tiny Hong Kong National Party, said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) that Beijing was semi-autonomous Hong Kong’s “colonial master”.
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“We are a nation that is quickly being annexed and destroyed by China,” Chan told a packed room.
“If Hong Kong were to become truly democratic, Hong Kong’s sovereignty must rest with the people of Hong Kong. China is, by its nature, an empire – a threat to all free peoples in the world.”
Chan called on Britain and the United States to help Hong Kong. He added he was under increased “surveillance” by groups of people he did not know, who had been following him and knocking on his family’s door to take pictures of them in the lead up to his speech.
The lunch address – titled Hong Kong Nationalism: A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule – was condemned by China’s foreign ministry and Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam.
Despite pressure from authorities, the club stood by its decision to go ahead with the event, saying the views of different sides in any debate must be heard.
The Hong Kong government said while it backs freedom of the speech and the press, it “deeply regrets” the event since advocating independence contravened the city’s Basic Law, or mini-constitution.
“It is totally inappropriate and unacceptable for any person to openly promote and advocate the independence of Hong Kong,” a spokesman said. “As such, it is also totally inappropriate and unacceptable for any organisation to provide a public platform to espouse such views.”
China’s foreign ministry in a statement “condemned” the correspondents’ club for hosting Chan and said there is a “bottom line” for freedom of speech. It said any words or actions that attempted to split Hong Kong from China would be “punished in accordance with the law” and that the FCC was “not outside the law”.
“We urge the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club to take a good look at itself, correct mistakes, follow the laws of China and the Special Administrative Region with practical actions, and respect the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people,” the foreign ministry said.
Al Jazeera’s Rob McBride, reporting from Hong Kong, said Chan wasn’t talking about a violent overthrow of Chinese rule, but instead achieving independence through peaceful means.
“Any talk of independence, as far as pro-Beijing protesters are concerned, is really treasonous kind of talk, treasonous behaviour, and a lot of their anger has been directed not only at Andy Chan but also at the journalists here for giving this man a platform,” he said.
Chan’s Hong Kong National Party is facing a ban from city authorities who say it is a threat to public security despite having only a dozen members.
It is the first time such a ban has been sought since Britain handed over control of Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997.
Hong Kong enjoys freedom of speech and assembly unseen on the mainland under the handover agreement between Britain and China.