Three Hong Kong judges are to rule tomorrow whether the protest slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times” is a call for secession when they deliver a verdict on charges against a man arrested at a demonstration last year.
The landmark ruling could have long-term implications for how a Beijing-imposed National Security Law against secession, terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign forces reshapes the territory’s common law traditions, some legal scholars say.
Democracy advocates say that a ruling to outlaw the slogan would tighten limits on free speech.
The slogan was last year chanted during democracy protests, posted online, scrawled on walls, and printed on everything from pamphlets, books, stickers and T-shirts to coffee mugs.
During the 15-day trial of 24-year-old former waiter Tong Ying-kit (唐英杰), the court heard how he rode a motorcycle, carrying a black flag bearing the slogan into several riot police officers in central Hong Kong on July 1 last year.
Tong was the first person charged under the National Security Law.
Prosecutor Anthony Chau (周天行) argued in court that this was an act of terrorism, and that Tong had sought to incite people to secession, which are “grave” offences under the new law that could result in prison terms of several years to life.
Tong has pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism, incitement to commit secession and dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm.
A cornerstone of the trial has been the prosecution’s argument that the slogan “connotes Hong Kong independence” — a position unacceptable to Beijing, which considers the financial hub and former British colony an “inalienable” part of China.
When Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, Beijing pledged to allow the territory to maintain its judicial system, and retain a wide degree of autonomy and freedoms as part of a binding deal with the UK.
Critics say those freedoms are being trampled, an assertion Beijing and the Hong Kong government reject.
In the court hearing, the meaning of the slogan was fiercely debated in exchanges that drew on eclectic references to Chinese emperors, Marxism-Leninism and a wide range of historical figures from around the globe.
The prosecution told the court that the slogan was coined in 2016 by Hong Kong localism advocate Edward Leung (梁天琦), who is seen by Beijing as promoting separatism.
Leung is serving a six-year jail term for rioting.
An expert witness for the prosecution, Lingnan University history professor Lau Chi-pang (劉智鵬), testified that the first part of the Chinese slogan, translated as “liberate” or “reclaim,” had been used throughout Chinese history from the Qin to the Qing dynasties, and that the meaning, to recover lost territory or to expel an enemy, “has not changed throughout a thousand years.”
The first part “is related to separating the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
The defense called two academics, Eliza Lee (李詠怡), a politics professor at the University of Hong Kong, and Francis Lee (李立?), a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and expert in political communication.
In a report based on interviews with protesters and social media posts related to the democracy movement, Francis Lee said there was “no substantial linkage” or correlation between the slogan and a call for Hong Kong independence.
“The subject slogan was understood, really, by many people in many different ways,” he said.
Eliza Lee told the court the slogan was meant to “unite freedom-loving people of all ages.”
However, she said she accepted that it could have pro-independence connotations to some people.
At one point Chau sought to draw parallels between Leung and the US civil rights leader Malcolm X, asking Eliza Lee whether she would consider him to be a separatist?
“How much do we need to venture into the complicated history of racial segregation in order to understand this,” she answered. “Whether Malcolm X was or could be regarded as a secessionist or separatist is a question far far removed from the issues presented in front of the court.”
In his closing speech, defense barrister Clive Grossman said protesters worldwide often held up signs without facing prosecution and that Tong should be acquitted if the meaning of the slogan was open-ended.
Lau had an “untenable, rigid, mechanical view of history” that paid no heed to rhetoric, and the meaning of the slogan could not be pinned down as Lau was trying to do, Grossman said.
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