‘Liberate Hong Kong’ slogan was about uniting freedom-loving people, political scientist testifies

Here’s what happened on Day 10 of the trial:

  • Activist Edward Leung wanted to recover a lost order and unite freedom-loving people when he created his slogan in 2016, a political scientist testified.
  • That slogan became ambiguous when it was revived in the 2019 protest movement, she added.
  • An academic analysis of LIHKG online forum posts found no significant correlation between the slogan and calls for Hong Kong independence.

A protest slogan created by Hong Kong activist Edward Leung years ago had been misunderstood by prosecutors as a call for independence, a political scientist said at the city’s first national security trial on Friday.

When it first emerged in 2016, the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” conveyed Leung’s political vision, which was to “recover an old order that was lost, and unite freedom-loving people of all ages to bring about historical change”, said Eliza Lee, a professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.

The expression resurfaced during 2019 protests when people needed words to represent their anger, but its meaning soon became ambiguous, Lee added.

She was interpreting for the court the central point of contention in the trial of Tong Ying-kit, 24, whose display of the slogan in question during a July 1, 2020, motorcycle ride that ended at a police roadblock, injuring three officers, led to charges of terrorism and inciting secession under the national security law.

Tong denies all the charges, including one of dangerous driving added by prosecutors in early June as an alternative to terrorism. The case is heard before national security judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan at the High Court without a jury.

‘Liberate’ slogans first appeared at community protests around 2012, a scholar of political studies says.

Speaking as an expert witness for the defence, Lee on Friday pushed back against prosecutors’ explanation of the slogan. She responded to earlier testimony by history professor Lau Chi-pang which interpreted the Chinese term gwong fuk (光復), translated as “liberate”, as recovering a regime or national territory that had fallen into enemy hands.

Lee said that reading was not supported in ancient Chinese history. In the classic text History of Yuan (元史), courtier Chen Zuren used the term to advise the emperor to “revive his forefathers’ great cause”, which clearly meant bolstering his own regime instead of overthrowing it, she said.

Taken on its own, the term “liberate” could communicate a desire to set something free from restriction or control, Lee said. As for “revolution”, it had a political definition but could also mean a “very important change in the way people do things”, she said, citing a dictionary.

In the context of Hong Kong politics, it was first used around 2012 in slogans employed at community demonstrations, such as “Reclaim Sheung Shui”; that trend continued up until 2016, with some events straddling 2018, she added.

“There were numerous so-called ‘reclaim’ actions in Hong Kong,” Lee said. “Gwong fuk entered contemporary usage in Hong Kong with the emergence of these community actions… ‘Reclaim’ has the meaning of restoring the order of the public space.”

Those protests were not about overthrowing the government, and were instead directed at community problems such as disruption brought by parallel traders, the political scientist elaborated. Even if they were motivated by resentment against people from mainland China, that still did not qualify as an intention to topple the regime, she said.

As the demonstrations wore on, Leung came into the picture as a member of Hong Kong Indigenous, a political group that played a leading role in organising those protests. He subsequently created “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” as an election slogan in his bid for a legislative seat in 2016.

On Leung’s campaign speech, which some people saw as a call for independence, Lee said the slogan’s meaning could not be equated to that of the speech. The slogan was meant to express his vision of uniting upholders of freedom regardless of age, recovering a lost order, and bringing about change at a significant time, as Lee put in her summary.

She also criticised Lau, the prosecution expert, as taking the classical Chinese meaning of the key terms out of context and applying them “almost mechanically” to Leung’s slogan.

Web forum posts show no clear correlation between the slogan and separatism.

Despite being invented in 2016, the slogan did not take over public consciousness in Hong Kong until the 2019 democracy movement when, in late July, the public “needed something new to represent their anger”, Lee said.

She pointed out that a mob attack at Yuen Long railway station on July 21, 2019, had caused tremendous public outrage. That, along with the re-emergence of community protests such as “Reclaim Tuen Mun”, contributed to the slogan’s rise to prominence, she said.

The decentralised and leaderless movement directly led to the problem of “ambiguity and polysemy”, which meant “multiple meanings”, when trying to decipher what the slogan meant to its users and recipients, Lee said. 

“In a focus group study, we found that participants of the protests attributed various meanings to the slogan,” the professor continued. “It meant different things to different people.”

The slogan’s meaning could have diverged from what Leung originally meant, because the context had changed from an election rally to leaderless mass protests, Lee said.

Political slogans, in particular, invited people to bring their own understanding to the words, partly based on their personal feelings and assumptions when faced with symbolic suggestions, the political scientist said, citing academic literature. Such slogans were designed to be short and easy to remember, with no elaboration.

“That is a major reason why slogans are almost, by nature, ambiguous and polysemous,” she told the court.

Lee also addressed a report compiled by the police that tried to link the slogan with secessionist and subversive activity, by analysing posts found on LIHKG, a popular online forum that played a pivotal role in the democracy movement.

The general finding was that, as the protests went on, discussion of Hong Kong independence increased on the website, she said, but “no statistically significant correlation” was seen between the percentage of posts mentioning independence and those talking about the words of the slogan.

Lee conceded that the methodology of her analysis was “not perfect”, because it merely compared the LIHKG posts in aggregate. She could measure only the prevalence of the keywords, but not the context in which they were used. The study was a preliminary attempt to find out what Hongkongers thought, she added.

Judges accept the relevance of defence experts.

On Friday, the three judges began the day by ruling, without detailing their reasons, that the defence had a case to answer.

The prosecution then applied to challenge the relevance of a defence expert report that was co-authored by Eliza Lee and Francis Lee, a journalism professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Those are the only two witnesses summoned by the defence as Tong himself will not take the stand.

Anthony Chau, acting deputy director of public prosecutions, said that the defence witnesses were not experts on history, so they were not qualified to respond to the testimony of the prosecution witness, history professor Lau. As for non-historical matters, Chau said the report’s on-site surveys were unreliable.

Judge Pang dismissed the arguments, noting the prosecution itself had accepted that multiple perspectives could be helpful. The complaints raised were not about the admissibility of the evidence, but about how much weight the court should give it, she said. The judge suggested Chau raise his concerns during cross-examination.

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