Hong Kong protesters flaunted colonial flag in 2010s. What does it mean today? court asks

Here’s what we saw on Day 11 of the trial:

  • Prosecutors quizzed a political scientist on why Hong Kong protesters waved colonial flags at demonstrations years ago.
  • Those community protests, styled along the lines of reclaiming Hong Kong, were partly about seeking independence, prosecutors argued.
  • The debate raged on over the meaning of “liberate” and “revolution” in a popular protest slogan.

Acts of protest going back almost a decade returned to the fore at the High Court on Monday, with prosecutors at Hong Kong’s first national security trial saying those demonstrations could shed light on a slogan lying at the heart of the case.

Some protesters in the 2010s waved the colonial Hong Kong flag — emblazoned with the Union Jack and a dragon and lion motif — probably because they were dissatisfied with the status quo and preferred the social order of the colonial era, but that did not necessarily mean they wanted the British to return, the court heard from politics professor Eliza Lee.

Lee was speaking as an expert witness in a case of terrorism, inciting secession and dangerous driving. Defence lawyers called Lee to the stand to make sense of “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”, the slogan displayed by defendant Tong Ying-kit, 24, when he drove his motorcycle into a group of police officers on July 1, 2020.

While the 15-day trial began by looking into Tong’s collision with police, the prosecution and the defence have since spent the bulk of their time debating the words of the slogan.

As prosecutors began their cross-examination of Lee on Monday, the scope of the sprawling discussion ranged from the relatively obscure Hong Kong Autonomy Movement to historical minutiae about China’s Cultural Revolution. At one point, the political scholar took a question on why an ancient Chinese emperor was advised not to renovate his palace in Xanadu.

Community protests in the 2010s are put under the microscope in court.

Lee, a professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong, was pressed to defend her interpretation of “liberate” and “revolution” as used in the slogan, in a line of questioning that traced the lineage of the slogan back to the early 2010s. 

The Chinese term gwong fuk (光復), translated as “liberate” in the slogan, also appeared in community-level protests against parallel traders from mainland China, albeit rendered as “reclaim” at the time, Acting Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Chau said.

“My logic is to look at ‘reclaim’ activities as a relevant consideration when construing the subject slogan,” Chau said. He believed that as early as 2015, some participants in those activities were already advocating Hong Kong independence, the court heard.

Lee said she had viewed images and videos related to the protests, some of which demonstrated hostile behaviour towards people from mainland China. She did not have enough information to interpret what the demonstrators meant by the signs and slogans, she said, though she admitted that the words could be “abusive, grossly inappropriate and racist”.

“You are expecting me to be a mind-reader,” she told Chau. “I cannot logically draw the conclusion that, just because some people using the term were anti-mainland and pro-independence, therefore gwong fuk (光復) must mean being against China.”

“I'm not asking you to be a mind-reader. I’m just asking you to look at objective facts,” Chau replied. The “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan, which was created by activist Edward Leung in 2016, was consistent with earlier reclamation-themed protests in its support for separatism, the prosecutor argued.

A judge casts doubt on the scholar’s interpretation of colonial flag use.

Earlier in the day, Lee was asked why colonial flags were used at another protest with a similar “reclamation” theme. Lee said she could not speak on behalf of the people waving the flags, but suggested that they probably preferred the way of life of the colonial era. That was not a literal call for restoring British sovereignty, she added.

“You cannot separate one from the other,” said Judge Esther Toh, one of the three designated national security judges hearing the case. “If you want your life to be like it was during the colonial era, you want to live under colonial rule.”

“I beg to disagree,” Lee replied, adding that those people might prefer the social, cultural or economic aspects of colonial Hong Kong, which did not immediately disappear after the 1997 handover from Britain to China.

“In any event, there is some kind of inconsistency… For the sake of argument, if these people are demanding colonial rule, then by definition they cannot be striving for independence.”

Lee said there was “zero chance” of Hong Kong returning to British rule, so people waving the colonial flag were just making a point and venting their grievances and discontent.

Judge Wilson Chan initially agreed with Lee that there was an inconsistency, but later withdrew his comment after discussion with the other judges. The prosecution and the defence later agreed not to pursue the issue of the flag.

The defence expert does not specialise in Chinese history, the lead prosecutor says. 

Last week, the prosecution called its sole expert witness Lau Chi-pang, a history professor at Lingnan University. Much of the prosecution case hinges on Lau’s interpretation of the words “liberate” and “revolution”, which he said was based on a historical perspective.

The prosecution’s understanding of gwong fuk (光復), or “liberate”, is partly based on how the term was used in an ancient history tract on the Yuan dynasty as the emperor was facing down a rebellion. Asked about this historical incident on Monday, Lee said she did not investigate the matter in depth. Prosecutor Chau had earlier said that Lee received formal training in Chinese history only up to Form Three.

Nevertheless, Lee said she was not convinced that “liberate Hong Kong” meant taking back the city from enemy occupation. It was a possible meaning, but not the most common one, she said.

“I would say it is a very bad interpretation, because it involves so much inaccuracy,” Lee said. “It takes many levels of assumptions to arrive at that conclusion.”

She also appeared exasperated when Chau produced a Chinese Communist Party document from 1981 to discuss the exact nature of the Cultural Revolution. The document, which provided the official line on that period, was intended to support the prosecutor’s point that the Cultural Revolution was an attempt to seize power and should therefore be understood as a revolution in the political sense.

Lee’s cross-examination will continue on Tuesday.

By Holmes Chan


Day 1: Hong Kong’s first national security suspect Tong Ying-kit goes on trial
Day 2: Police fired pepper balls at Tong Ying-kit’s speeding motorbike, court hears
Day 3: Role of police arm shield in Tong Ying-kit crash under question in court
Day 4: ‘I had a feeling’ Tong Ying-kit meant to flee after crashing, says injured policeman
Day 5: Tong Ying-kit’s slogan is about ‘taking back Hong Kong from enemy’, professor tells court
Day 6: Slogan creator Edward Leung wanted to ‘build a nation for Hongkongers’, court told
Day 7: Trial debates Tong Ying-kit’s perception of ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ slogan
Day 8: Lawyers caught unawares as slogan evidence can’t be found in middle of hearing
Day 9: Tong Ying-kit purposely avoided hitting police with motorbike: defence
Day 10: ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ slogan was about uniting freedom-loving people, political scientist testifies