The End of Free Speech in Hong Kong
The conviction of a pro-democracy activist is a watershed moment.
Updated at 9:46 a.m. ET on July 29, 2021.
Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.
For 15 days this month, prosecutors and defense lawyers in a Hong Kong courtroom wrangled over the history and parsed words in this phrase. The back-and-forth included numerous forays into the obscure in an attempt to pinpoint the exact meaning of the slogan, created five years ago and popularized during 2019’s pro-democracy protests. There were diversions into ancient Chinese history and poetry; the former nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek made a cameo, as did the American civil-rights leader Malcolm X. The crux of the argument: Could these seven words transform a dangerous-driving incident more than a year ago into an act of terrorism and secession?
Today, a panel of judges said emphatically that they could and they had. It found Tong Ying-kit, the first person to face trial under the national-security law imposed by Beijing last year, guilty of terrorism and inciting secession. The motorcycle that Tong, a 24-year-old former waiter, was driving crashed into riot police on July 1, 2020, during a demonstration against the national-security law. A black flag bearing the popular protest mantra flew off the back of his bike when the crash occurred. Tong’s actions caused “great harm to society,” Esther Toh, one of the judges hearing the case, told the court. The protest banner attached to his motorcycle was intended “to incite others to commit secession by separating” Hong Kong from mainland China, according to the judges’ ruling. Tong will be sentenced at a later date. He faces the possibility of life in prison.
The ruling is one of the most significant in Hong Kong’s recent history, criminalizing one of the most popular slogans from the pro-democracy protests that swept across the city in 2019. It sets a precedent that the mere uttering of any phrase or singing of any song that irks the government can now be deemed as among the most grievous of crimes in Hong Kong—a precedent that can, and most likely will, be used against the dozens of government critics sitting in the city’s jails, awaiting their day in court for allegedly violating the security law. The verdict “simply marks the end of free speech in Hong Kong, as a pure expression of politically dissenting opinion can be punished for inciting secession,” Eric Yan-ho Lai, the Hong Kong law fellow at the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, told me shortly after the verdict was announced. “Undoubtedly, the verdict aligns with the government narratives on the slogan and thus criminalized anti-government speech.”
Tong’s conviction is just the latest development, and one of the most serious, in an unrelenting campaign by Beijing and its loyalists in Hong Kong to stamp out the faintest inkling of dissent in the city. Even before the verdict was handed down, “Tong’s case set a dangerous precedent,” Lai said. He pointed to the fact that the case was heard not by a jury but by a panel of three judges handpicked by the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and that Tong was held in pretrial detention for more than a year.
Lam has made national security the primary focus of her government’s work, and she mentions it in nearly all of her remarks. At times, this obsessiveness bleeds into the absurd. Days before Tong was sentenced, five speech therapists were arrested on sedition charges. Their alleged crime: publishing children’s books featuring cartoon wolves and sheep to tell the story of the city’s 2019 protests. (Cute, anthropomorphic illustrations are, apparently, a persistent threat to Hong Kong’s stability. National-security police separately swarmed a store known for its products with cartoon animal prints that contain nods to the pro-democracy movement, but made no arrests after searching the premises.)
The Hong Kong Police Force, largely allowed to act with impunity during the sometimes violent protests, has been granted seemingly unlimited and unchecked power. The former police commissioner who oversaw the crackdown on demonstrators in 2019 was promoted to secretary for security last month. The security secretary, also a former police officer, rose to the rank of chief secretary, the second-highest-ranking official in Hong Kong’s government. Under sweeping electoral changes implemented earlier this year, the two will have a role in vetting candidates who wish to stand in future elections to ensure that they are patriotic enough, giving them unprecedented control over who can enter the political establishment. After these promotions were met with concern from some quarters, Alice Mak, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, wondered aloud why anyone was concerned. “If it’s a police state, why not?” she asked last month. “I don’t think there’s any problem with a police state.”
Much of Tong’s trial focused on the phrase “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” which was used by the political activist Edward Leung during his 2016 campaign for a seat in the Hong Kong legislature. Leung, who was jailed in 2018, became a symbol for many young protesters during the 2019 demonstrations. He was hailed by his followers as having predicted Beijing’s crackdown and for advocating for more radical protest tactics. Prosecutors relied heavily on the expertise of Lau Chi-pang, a pro-Beijing history professor at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong, who drew on Chinese history to argue that the meaning of some words within the slogan had remained unchanged for more than 1,000 years and advocated for overthrowing the government. The defense called two professors; Francis Lee, of the journalism school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who carried out research during the protests, said that the slogan could have numerous meanings. The three judges, however, wrote that this argument did not rule out that secession could be one of the meanings.
Baggio Leung, a former pro-democracy lawmaker who helped create the slogan, told me it was hatched late at night during a brainstorming session on the balcony of Edward Leung’s office in January 2016. Edward’s original idea was too wordy and complicated for a campaign, so four young activists set about coming up with something snappier and less erudite that would catch people’s attention. Fueled by cigarettes and Chardonnay, Baggio said, the four settled on “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” In 2019, as protests that began in opposition to a proposed extradition bill morphed into far larger calls for democracy and universal suffrage, the slogan became ubiquitous. It was chanted at demonstrations and printed on banners and stickers. Edward Leung’s image was stenciled onto streets and emblazoned on flags.
Baggio Leung, who now lives in exile in the United States and is not related to Edward, told me he was amused by expert witnesses called by both the prosecution and defense, as well as lawyers attempting to dissect words thought up late at night by a group of friends. The slogan was meant to be eye-catching and had nothing to do with separating Hong Kong from China, he said. “They keep asking other people to interpret what it means, but to do this is meaningless,” Leung told me. “Everyone in their heart has their own understanding of it. Who are they to make a comment on how others think about this slogan?”
Tong’s terrorism charge centered on the driving of his red-, orange-, and white-striped sportsbike. His lawyer argued that Tong’s dangerous driving did not amount to terrorism, but the judges were unconvinced. His actions, they wrote, were a “deliberate challenge mounted against the police, a symbol of Hong Kong’s law and order,” and he “carried out those acts with a view to intimidating the public in order to pursue [a] political agenda.”
The verdict will no doubt be welcomed by Beijing and its Hong Kong loyalists, who have unquestioningly fallen in line with their new marching orders and repeat unwaveringly that the national-security law has greatly improved the city. At the same time, they have attempted to spin the law’s impact, saying that freedom of speech remains unharmed in Hong Kong and that there is room for an opposition camp, even though the majority of its most popular figures are in jail or exile. That the rule of law in the city remains solid is their popular refrain, but their critics say rule by law is now more apt.
Lau Siu-kai, the vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semiofficial advisory body set up by Beijing, struck a triumphant tone earlier this month in the state-backed China Daily newspaper. The national-security law “has devastated the political opposition in Hong Kong,” he wrote. “The space of operation of the opposition has shrunken drastically, putting their long-term survival at serious risk.”
A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Hong Kong's secretary for security as the secretary for home affairs.