Tam Tak-chi has spent much of the past two decades talking. First as a popular radio host, then as a prodemocracy activist, Tam had opinions, many of them, and cared little about holding them back. So it was not entirely surprising—perhaps even expected in Hong Kong’s rapidly atrophying space for dissent—that his words eventually drew the ire of authorities. Early one September morning last year, Tam was arrested at his home.
His case has not drawn as much media attention, either domestically or abroad, as some other recent incidents in the city—the day he was arrested, police nabbed some 300 others, fired pepper balls at demonstrators, and tackled a 12-year-old girl to the ground. In the months that followed, a steady, unrelenting clampdown included the jailing of the newspaper executive Jimmy Lai, and the mass arrest of prodemocracy figures has continued.
Yet in many ways, Tam’s legal ordeal helps explain contemporary Hong Kong better than those other episodes, pointing both to the city’s fast-changing political and legal landscape and to its more deeply rooted history.
Initial reports speculated that Tam, 47, was being charged under the sweeping national-security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last year to snuff out dissent, but after mulling over his offense, the authorities said he would not be pursued under the new rules. Instead, prosecutors reached deep into the pages of Hong Kong’s law books for something far older: a colonial-era sedition law. By chanting protest slogans at street booths often set up under the guise of solely providing information to the public about the pandemic, Tam tried, police said, “to incite hatred and contempt against the government” and to “raise discontent and disaffection between people from Hong Kong and other places.” The law had not been used for decades, since before Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from London to Beijing.