A 24-year-old Hong Kong man was convicted on Tuesday of inciting secession and terrorism as he drove a motorbike flying a black-and-white protest flag into a group of police officers in 2020.
Tong Ying-kit, a former restaurant worker, has become the first person to be found guilty of offenses under Hong Kong’s new National Security Law, a precedent that may influence the verdict of future related court cases.
After Beijing passed the National Security Law for Hong Kong on June 30 last year, thousands of Hong Kong people defied a police ban and marched on the streets to oppose the legislation the following day, which marked the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the special administrative region.
Nearly 140 people have been arrested under the National Security Law since it was enacted after sometimes violent protests in 2019. About three-quarters of the arrests have been speech-related.
Among those detained are many former pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council, along with former student leader Joshua Wong and media owner Jimmy Lai.
On July 1, 2020, Tong was seen on TV footage driving a motorbike into police officers in Wan Chai, knocking three of them to the ground on O’Brien Road. A flag on his motorbike read “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times,” a slogan frequently chanted by anti-extradition bill protesters in 2019.
The slogan was first coined by former democratic activist leader Edward Leung in 2016 during his election campaign for a New Territories East Legislative Council by-election.
Tong was arrested at the site of the incident and later prosecuted on secession, terrorism and dangerous driving charges. He was held in pre-trial detention and was denied a trial by jury as the court cited concerns over the personal safety of jurors and their families.
Ronny Tong, a Hong Kong senior counsel and an Executive Council member, said judges had considered the evidence and the defendant’s intention to determine that the liberate slogan could incite secession. He opined that courts would consider the same factors in future cases.
He added that people could be arrested and face charges if they continued to use the liberate slogan heretofore.
Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager and pro-democracy activist, said Tong’s verdict would affect future court cases and recommended Hong Kong people, particularly the young, to leave the city or they would be easily prosecuted under the National Security Law.
On July 2 last year, the Hong Kong government said in a statement that the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” connotes “Hong Kong independence,” or separating the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
A spokesman said the government strongly condemned any acts which challenge the sovereignty, unification and territorial integrity of China.
Tam Tak-chi, 48, a pro-democracy activist and radio presenter, was arrested last September on suspicion of uttering seditious words. He was accused of spreading hatred against the Hong Kong police and the Chinese government by chanting slogans on the streets between January 17 and August 23 last year.
He had publicly chanted the liberate slogan more than 300 times, according to police. Tam, whose trial began on Monday, faces 14 charges including participation in an illegal assembly, violation of public order in a public place and sedition under the Crime Ordinance. He will also face national security-related charges as he participated in the pro-democracy camp’s primaries in July 2020.
During Tong’s 15-day trial this month, expert witnesses had mixed views on whether the liberate slogan carried the meaning of “Hong Kong independence.”
Lau Chi-pang, a professor at Lingnan University’s Department of History and an expert witness in the case, testified that the first portion of the Chinese slogan “gwong fuk”, translated as “liberate” or “reclaim,” means “to recover lost territory or to expel an enemy.”
Lau said such meaning had not changed throughout a thousand years across different dynasties throughout Chinese history. He said the liberate slogan only had one meaning, which was to separate Hong Kong from the PRC, and that the meaning was understood by everyone.
Two defense experts compiled a report for the court case. Eliza Lee, a professor from the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, told the court that “gwong fuk” could be interpreted as restoring an old undertaking or returning to a previous state.
Lee said from a historical point of view the words could mean restoring an ancestors’ undertaking, but they didn’t necessarily mean taking over a regime.
She said the liberate slogan’s context in which Leung used it in 2016 and how protesters used it in 2019 was different. She said the anti-extradition protests in 2019 were largely leaderless while their decentralized nature had led to ambiguity over the slogan’s meaning among its users and recipients.
Francis Lee, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said a focus group study was carried out during the protests where 40 people who took part in the demonstrations were interviewed in group discussions.
He said he collated views on the slogan made public by academics and commentators for a public discourse analysis, and studied around 2.5 million posts and comments on the LIHKG forum, an online discussion platform, to look for a correlation between the liberate slogan and independence slogans.
He said people’s interpretation of the meaning of the liberate slogan varied and that it was not always a policy demand but was used to articulate feelings and sentiments.
On Tuesday, judges Esther Loh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan, handpicked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to hear national security cases, ruled that Tong’s acts were aimed at “intimidating the public in order to pursue a political agenda.”
They noted that the offenses occurred on the anniversary of the handover and just a day after the introduction of the National Security Law.
“We have no difficulty in coming to the sure conclusion that the slogan as at July 1, 2020, was capable of carrying the meaning of separating the HKSAR from the PRC and was capable of inciting others to commit secession,” the judges said in their ruling.
“We are also sure that the defendant fully understood the slogan to bear the meaning of Hong Kong independence and by displaying, in the manner he did, the flag bearing the slogan, the defendant intended to convey the secessionist meaning of the slogan as understood by him to others and he intended to incite others to commit acts separating the HKSAR from the PRC.”
The judges said Tong’s acts involved “dangerous activities which seriously jeopardized public safety or security” as Tong crashed his motorbike into the police.
“The defendant’s failure to stop at all the police check-lines, eventually crashing into the police, was a deliberate challenge mounted against the police, a symbol of Hong Kong’s law and order,” said the judges.
RTHK reported that Tong, who denied all charges, appeared calm on hearing the verdict. Under the National Security Law, Tong could face life imprisonment for terrorism and a five to 10-year jail term for secession. His mitigation plea will be heard on Thursday.