A Correctional Services van arrives at the High Court in Hong Kong on July 30, 2021, as Tong Ying-kit faces sentencing after he was convicted of terrorism and inciting secession in the first trial conducted under a national security law imposed by China. Photo: AFP / Isaac Lawrence

A Hong Kong waiter was jailed for nine years on Friday after he became the first person convicted under a sweeping new national security law that Beijing imposed on the city to stamp out dissent.

Tong Ying-kit, 24, was found guilty on Tuesday of terrorism for driving a motorbike into three police officers and secession for flying a protest flag during a rally on July 1 last year, the day after the national security law was enacted.

The trial was a watershed moment that laid down a new marker in the city’s changing legal landscape and confirmed that certain outlawed political slogans now carry lengthy jail terms.

The flag Tong flew read “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” a ubiquitous chant during the huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that convulsed the city two years ago.

His trial was heard without a jury – a significant departure from Hong Kong’s common law tradition – and was decided by three judges handpicked by the city’s leader to try national security crimes.

Those judges ruled that Tong driving his bike into police met the bar for terrorism, while the flag he flew was capable of “inciting secession.”

They sentenced him to eight years for the first charge and six-and-a-half years for the second, but said some of the time could be served concurrently, leading to a total of nine years.

Tong’s offenses, the judges ruled, were of a “serious nature” but were “not the worst case of its kind.”

The ruling has profound implications for future national security cases.

More than 60 people have been charged under the law, including some of the city’s best-known democracy activists such as Jimmy Lai, owner of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper.

Most are now in jail awaiting trial. National security crimes can carry up to life in prison. 

Police lead Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, 72, away from his home after he was arrested under the national security law on August 10, 2020. Photo: AFP / Vernon Yuen

Courts packed

China is remolding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image in response to 2019’s protests.

The security law has criminalized much dissent and authorities have embarked on a campaign to root out anyone deemed unpatriotic.

Tong’s sentencing came after a frenetic few days of activity by police and the courts that illustrates the breadth of that campaign.

Hours before Tong’s jailing Chow Hang-tung, a barrister and democracy activist, appeared in court to plead not guilty to a charge of encouraging Hong Kongers to mark the June 4 anniversary of Beijing’s deadly 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

“Mourning is not a crime. I plead not guilty,” she told the court.

At a separate court hearing across town, law professor Benny Tai – a key leader of democracy protests back in 2014 – was facing new charges brought by the city’s anti-corruption watchdog.

Tai and two others are charged with “illegal conduct” over expenses incurred when they placed adverts for pro-democracy candidates in local elections five years ago.

Tai, 57, has been jailed multiple times for his involvement in pro-democracy causes and is now in detention on national security charges.

In another court, radio talkshow host Tam Tak-chi was partway through a trial for sedition in the first use of the colonial-era law since the city’s 1997 handover by Britain to China. 

Tam was hit with sedition charges for a number of slogans he used last year including “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” “Corrupt cops, all of your family go to hell,” “Disband Hong Kong police, delay no more” and “Down with the Communist Party of China.”

The law had not been used for decades but was dusted off by police and prosecutors last year.

On Friday police also announced they were investigating Olympic Games fans who booed China’s national anthem and drowned it out with chanting during a public screening at a mall on Monday night.

Authorities passed legislation last year banning any insults to China’s national anthem and flag.

Authorities also said a teenager and a 26-year-old man had been arrested for “criminal intimidation” over Facebook posts urging consumers to boycott advertisers of a local news channel that is deemed as being pro-government by many democracy activists.