Exiled Chinese author in Hong Kong urges 'courage' to defend free speech

Chinese author Ma Jian had difficulty finding a venue Hong Kong venue that would host him

Dissident Chinese author Ma Jian hit out at threats to freedom of speech Saturday saying it was the "basis of civilisation" after a struggle to find a venue to host his talks at Hong Kong's literary festival.

The venue battle fuelled growing concerns that semi-autonomous Hong Kong's freedoms are fast disappearing under an assertive Beijing.

Ma, whose books are banned in mainland China, promoted his latest novel "China Dream" at two speaking events Saturday.

The title plays on Chinese President Xi Jinping's rhetoric of national rejuvenation and is described by publisher Penguin as "a biting satire of totalitarianism".

"Self-censorship is nothing wonderful and we have to have the courage to break that," he told reporters Saturday morning at a press conference at the new Tai Kwun arts centre, which hosts the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and had originally cancelled his talks.

The venue reinstated them at the 11th hour Friday after a replacement location also dropped out.

Ma, 65, said Tai Kwun's last-minute change of heart showed "self-censorship had failed".

"The freedom to speak is the basis of our civilisation," he added.

"We have to safeguard our freedom of expression. We have to safeguard our civilisation."

- 'We were wrong' -

Speaking to a packed audience about his new book later Saturday night at Tai Kwun, Ma had further words of warning for Hong Kong people.

"You might not feel it now, but perhaps your children might have to read Xi Jinping Thought as their text book in school later," he said through a translator.

He also said that Xi's hardline approach in China had been unexpected.

"At first we thought Xi Jinping wasn't a Red Guard, he wouldn't think he owned the country," he said. "But we were wrong."

Ma, who lives in London and has a British passport as well as holding Hong Kong residency, earlier said he had informed his local MP that he was coming to Hong Kong and they had told the British foreign ministry.

"I know that they would protect me if I ever disappeared and would look for me," he said.

"This is what I can do in a democratic country."

Tai Kwun's director Timothy Calnin said Thursday it had cancelled Ma's talks because it did not want to be "a platform to promote the political interests of any individual".

Backtracking Friday, Calnin said public statements by Ma had clarified he would not use the venue to "promote his personal political interests".

Ma had said from the beginning of the row that he is a novelist, not a politician.

"If anybody separates the political elements from other things in novels, that only shows the ignorance of that person," he told reporters.

He added that the fact he had entered Hong Kong freely after concerns he would not be allowed in made him think the government had not been involved in the two venues' decisions to bar him.

Literary festival organisers said they could not comment when asked by reporters Saturday for more detail on the reasons Tai Kwun had given them for the original cancellations and the backtrack.