People like myself who do not support the Hong Kong National Party or its objectives should not have the smallest hesitation in protesting over moves made to outlaw its very existence.
Indeed anyone interested in the defence of liberty has a duty to speak up for the right to express views that may well be contrary to their own. In the unlikely event that the pro-Beijing DAB party was threatened with a ban, I very much hope I would be there supporting its existence. This is the essence of freedom of speech, which cannot possibly be interpreted as being confined to the freedom only to express views matching your own.
The Chief Executive Carrie Lam specifically addressed this issue by insisting that freedom of expression was qualified by a ‘red (sic) line or a bottom line’, which was crossed by independence.
In most jurisdictions, there are indeed limitations on freedom of speech where, for example, racial hatred is outlawed or, more commonly, where defamation carries heavy penalties. However expressing opposition to the established political order is not considered to be grounds for prohibition under international law, indeed banning expressions of opposition is regarded as a repugnant example of overreach by governments. Were it the case that the police had been able, as a result of its evidently copious investigation, to produce a shred of evidence that this party was involved in violent activity, this would change the picture. However, no evidence has been produced.
There is very little doubt that if the Hong Kong government successfully moves against the HKNP, it will mark the beginning – and not the end – of a process designed to ban other forms of political opposition.
As is always the case in matters of this kind the authorities begin their crackdown on political opponents by attacking the opposition at its weakest point. Advocates of Hong Kong independence clearly fall into this category as they stand apart from the majority of the democracy movement and adopt a position that enjoys no more than minimal public support.
This makes their persecution all the more absurd, because a small organization with minimal support hardly presents a threat to national security. On the other hand the unsubtle nature of this attack makes it clear that the government is now prepared to use the criminal law to silence critics.
There can be little doubt that this crackdown emanates from central government pressure, as any suggestion of separatism induces palpations in Beijing. But even if there has been no direct pressure, the Lam administration knows how to win brownie points with the central authorities by being seen to be tough on opponents, particularly those who openly question the Chinese dictatorship.
In its letter to the HKNP the police make some far-reaching claims as to why this party is guilty of unlawful activities, citing the Societies Ordinance, which has mainly been used to combat organized crime. The law was also designed to thwart both the Communist Party and Kuomintang and thus includes unspecified prohibitions on societies that threaten national security and ‘safety’. However the underground Communist Party continues to operate in Hong Kong and has not faced prosecution for its unlicensed activities.
Using this kind of law is a direct echo of the way that dissidents are persecuted on the Mainland after being accused of being a threat to national security.
The pretext of concern over national security is the chosen weapon of dictatorships and is not confined to China. Authoritarian governments typically reach for legal means to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of association because, despite the trappings of strength, they are fundamentally insecure. Political systems that are self confident tolerate a great deal of dissent because they firmly believe that democratic societies will not be undermined by vigorous debate.
But the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing are perpetually nervous, perpetually on the look out for so-called foreign meddling in their affairs and permanently exercised by all manner of social and political interaction that is beyond the state’s control. If they really believed in the superiority of the Communist dictatorship they would engage in fulsome debate with opponents but this, of course, never happens.
Those of us who dared to believe that Article 27 of the Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of expression, would be upheld, have every reason to be disappointed but disappointment will not suffice in current circumstances, vigorous protest is required.