Mainland China and local authorities are calling for the cancellation of a scheduled speech from a member of a pro-independence Hong Kong political party, raising concerns about the state of free speech in the city.
The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents' Club has planned to host Andy Chan Ho-tin, leader of the Hong Kong National Party, on Tuesday of next week for a talk entitled "A Politically Incorrect Guide to Hong Kong under Chinese Rule."
Chan's party advocates independence for Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China that was a British colony until 1997. The local government is considering a police request to ban the party on national security grounds.
Under a Sino-British accord, Hong Kong kept its legal system, currency and civic freedoms, famously guaranteed for 50 years under the "one country, two systems" formula.
Hong Kong is a major global financial and trade center of about 7.4 million people and its combination of low regulation, free speech and rule of law have contributed to the city as a favored center for international banks and multinational companies.
But scholars and rights organizations say Hong Kong's autonomy has eroded over the past two decades as China increasingly exerts pressure on local authorities to curtail democratic aspirations.
Hong Kong was rocked in 2014 by street protests calling for more democracy, with local authorities eventually taking a hard line as Beijing watched closely.
The central government has come down hard on any calls for independence which, while rare, are seen as a red line over which authorities will never compromise.
The Chinese government has called for Chan's invitation to be withdrawn.
"We are firmly against the attempt of any external forces to provide venue to the advocates for 'Hong Kong independence' to spread their nonsense," the foreign ministry's office in Hong Kong said in a statement on its website.
Carrie Lam, who heads Hong Kong's government as its chief executive, has also come out against the invitation as has her predecessor CY Leung.
Benson Wai-Kwok Wong, an assistant professor in the department of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that pro-Beijing elites in the city were using the controversy to justify the central government's further tightening of control.
"Actually, what they are doing is a threat to one country, two systems," he told CNBC, adding that foreign investors will question "whether the Hong Kong government is a government that upholds fairness, equality or even rule of law."
In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents' Club showed no sign of succumbing to the pressure, instead stressing the importance of open discussion
"We believe that in free societies such as Hong Kong it is vitally important to allow people to speak and debate freely, even if one does not agree with their particular views," it said.
Calls to rescind Chan's invitation were denounced as a "blatant attempt to stifle free speech in Hong Kong," the International Federation of Journalists said in a statement.
"The government must respect the role of free speech and encourage robust dialogue and debates, which ultimately strengthen Hong Kong," it said.
Lam in a speech on July 1 marking the 21st anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Britain said that local authorities have shown "no tolerance for any act that would hit our country's bottom line," an apparent reference to calls for democracy on the Chinese mainland and independence for Hong Kong.
Days before, Human Rights Watch published a letter to Lam in which it expressed concern "regarding the rapid deterioration of civil and political rights in Hong Kong," citing increased prosecutions of democracy advocates and interference in academic and publishing freedom, among others.