Ma Chun-man in October 2020 (file photo)

Explainer: Independence slogans at the heart of Hong Kong’s second security law trial

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Ma Chun-man is the second person standing trial under Hong Kong’s national security law. The trial will conclude next week and a verdict is expected on October 25.
  • Prosecutors said Ma incited secession by chanting pro-independence slogans, displaying placards and talking to the press on 20 occasions in the second half of last year.
  • Unlike the city’s first national security trial, which ended in July, Ma is not accused of committing violence and is charged solely on the basis of what he said.

This week, Hong Kong prosecutors made their case in the District Court against Ma Chun-man, the second person to be tried under the city’s national security law.

Ma, 30, has pleaded not guilty to one count of inciting secession. Prosecutors said he publicly advocated Hong Kong independence on 20 separate occasions between August 15 and November 22 last year — chanting slogans, holding up placards and giving interviews to the media.

The trial is scheduled to run for five days, up to next Tuesday. District Judge Stanley Chan, who is among the jurists chosen to handle national security cases, said he expected to make his ruling on October 25.

The offence of inciting secession comes with a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail under Article 21 of the national security law, but Ma will not serve more than seven years if convicted, because he is being tried in the District Court.

What is Ma accused of doing?

The former food delivery worker was arrested multiple times between last August and November, mostly because of his expressions in favour of independence. A regular presence at rallies and protests, he earned the nickname “Captain America 2.0” as he sometimes carried a toy replica of the comic character’s shield. 

“The defendant, both by himself and leading others, chanted ‘Hong Kong independence, the only way out’, ‘Hongkongers build our nation’, ‘Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times’... On multiple occasions, he displayed placards to the public bearing the words ‘One nation, one Hong Kong’,” government lawyers told the court in their opening arguments on Tuesday.

“The defendant promoted independence when he was interviewed by the media. He clearly expressed that his cause was Hong Kong independence and said the national security law was just an ornament,” they said, adding that Ma used his social media and Telegram accounts to encourage people to join protests.

Ma also said the idea of Hong Kong independence should be discussed at all levels of education, and urged the public to prepare for armed conflict, according to the prosecutors.

Defence lawyers, meanwhile, contended at the beginning of the trial that Ma only wanted to “test the bottom line” of the national security law and had no intention of inciting others to commit secession. They also questioned whether the prosecution could prove that the Facebook posts cited as evidence were really written by Ma.

Ma Chun-man (file photo)

What happened in the trial so far?

Starting from Tuesday, the prosecution called two police witnesses to testify on Ma’s behaviour. One officer said he issued Ma with a fixed penalty ticket on August 15 last year for breaching social distancing laws outside the Pacific Place shopping centre in Admiralty, and that Ma shouted pro-independence slogans as he received the ticket.

The other policeman said he was part of a team that searched Ma’s home, where they found five black T-shirts with the slogan “Give me liberty or give me death”, Ma’s computer, and a notebook with the words “Captain America’s diary of resistance”.

As evidence, the prosecution also submitted 18 video clips taken from the internet and two others filmed by the police. The clips showed Ma’s behaviour at protests and rallies that took place all across Hong Kong.

Prosecutors further cited Ma’s testimony from a court appearance a few weeks earlier, where he tried to contest the social distancing fine. Speaking without a lawyer, Ma told the court that his purpose for going to Pacific Place on August 15, 2020, was to “promote Hong Kong independence and prepare for the coming of the next revolution”, and that “blood must be spilt during a revolution”.

Judge Chan ruled on Tuesday that this previous speech could not be used as evidence for the current case against Ma.

Throughout the trial, Ma did not defend himself in court, nor did the defence call any witnesses or cross-examine the two police officers. The hearing will resume on October 5 for both sides to make closing arguments. 

How does this case fit into the big picture?

Ma has been locked up since last November. After his initial application for bail was denied, he shouted from the dock: “The fruits of democracy are obtained through blood and sweat.”

In a June interview with Stand News, Ma confessed to feeling demoralised after spending nearly three months in solitary confinement. “I have to accept reality. If I always think about resistance, I will have a breakdown,” he wrote in a letter.

He was one to enjoy the company of others, he added, and was especially hard hit after learning he would be transferred to the maximum-security Stanley prison. 

In contrast to the high-profile trial of Tong Ying-kit — the first person convicted and jailed under Hong Kong’s national security law — Ma’s case has drawn considerably less attention both at home and abroad. During the hearings, the public gallery in the courtroom often sat half-empty.

As of September 2021, more than 150 people have been arrested under the national security law, including students, activists, journalists and politicians. At least half of them have been formally charged.

By Holmes Chan