Prominent pro-democracy figures urged unity to protect freedom of speech in Hong Kong, with some 2,000 people attending a rally on Saturday in support of embattled academic Benny Tai.
Tai, a University of Hong Kong law professor, came under fire from the local and central governments this month after suggesting Hong Kong could potentially become independent should China ever democratise. He was attacked for advocating independence, though the Umbrella Movement convenor has has denied ever supporting the idea.
Tai told supporters outside the legislature that the “red line” set by Beijing has been moving backwards to limit Hong Kong people’s freedom.
“Some ask: Benny Tai, why do you step on the red line? [I say] it was not problematic to talk about independence in Hong Kong – now that there is a red line, you cannot run for election,” he said. “Now, even if we discuss whether [independence] can be an additional option – there is another red line.”
“It has been drawing red lines to split Hong Kong people apart. That’s why I am happy to see you don’t mind being here with me.”
Tai suggested that he was not being attacked for advocating independence but, rather, it was because he inspired Hong Kong people to think about the future.
“Under the grand discourse of Xi Jinping, after the modification of the Chinese constitution, they want – not only for there be no opposition to the regime – but support for rule of the Chinese Communist Party forever – you cannot even think about what possibility you have in the future,” he said.
Former lawmaker Martin Lee compared the incident to a recent controversy over the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, where breakwater components to absorb waves were seemingly disconnected from an artificial island.
“How do the breakwater components work? They have to group up together. Facing the future, we have to be like these stones,” he said. “We have to group up to have power, we have to be like a chain, we have to be hand in hand.”
As the rally came to an end, pro-democracy activists threw a chain from the stage to the ground to symbolise unity to protect freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Organisers did not offer an estimate of the number of participants, but lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki said there were around 2,000 to 3,000 people.
The police said there were 1,200 in attendance at the peak of the rally.
‘No Hongkongers safe’
Meanwhile, pro-independence groups also held a smaller-scale, simultaneous rally alongside the pro-democracy camp protest.
They criticised the attacks on Benny Tai, saying they were akin to the Cultural Revolution, even though Tai did not support independence.
“If people like Benny Tai with conservative views can be accused of advocating independence by the Communist camp, no Hong Kong people can say they will be safe,” a statement from the Hong Kong National Front read.
“From this day on, we are all independence advocates [in Beijing’s eyes]… The suppression Benny Tai faced is equal to the suppression of the pro-independence camp, it is the suppression against all Hong Kong residents who will not cooperate with the Hong Kong Communist government.”