National security judges sceptical of using group discussions to interpret slogan

Here are the highlights from Day 12 of the trial:

  • In court, a journalism professor defended the methodology of his study into the meaning of a popular protest slogan.
  • The intentions behind Edward Leung’s 2016 electoral campaign continued to be closely scrutinised.
  • Prosecutors called rights activist Malcolm X a separatist.

Hong Kong’s national security judges on Tuesday debated the merits of using focus groups to gauge people’s understanding of “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”, underlining the difficulty of nailing down the meaning of an ambiguous protest slogan in a court of law.

Francis Lee, a professor of journalism and communication studies, said the slogan could have many interpretations instead of “one true meaning”. He previously carried out a focus group study involving 40 people of various backgrounds, each of whom brought their own meanings to the slogan, with some saying their understanding evolved over time, Lee told the court.

The protest slogan plays a pivotal role in deciding whether Tong Ying-kit, Hong Kong’s first defendant under national security laws, will be convicted of inciting secession. Tong, 24, also faces one count each of terrorism and dangerous driving, for allegedly driving a motorcycle into several police officers on July 1, 2020, while flying a flag bearing the slogan.

Francis Lee is expected to be among the last witnesses asked to testify in the 15-day trial at the High Court. He started taking the stand on Tuesday after the prosecution finished cross-examining the previous defence expert, politics scholar Eliza Lee.

The slogan does not have one true meaning, an academic in journalism says.

Throughout much of the trial, prosecutors have argued that the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan carries a static meaning, that of removing Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong and separating the city from China. The defence has contended that the meaning is fluid, by relying on a research report co-authored by its two experts, Eliza Lee and Francis Lee.

Francis Lee, who teaches journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he mainly contributed empirical research to the report. This included collecting “tens of millions” of posts and comments from the online forum LIHKG to analyse the usage trends of specific phrases, as well as conducting on-site protest surveys to gather demonstrators’ views. 

It was his use of focus groups in the research process that piqued the interest of national security judges Esther Toh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan. 

The journalism professor said he recruited 40 people divided into seven groups for a qualitative study; three groups had a mix of subjects from different backgrounds, while the remaining groups were categorised in terms of young people, primary and secondary school teachers, social workers and media practitioners. They were either supporters or participants of the pro-democracy protests in 2019. In a two-hour chat session, researchers asked them simple, open-ended questions about the slogan.

“How do we make sure people will speak the truth?” asked Judge Chan, noting that people were sometimes embarrassed about revealing their political leanings. 

Lee said the judge’s question assumed people could hold only one truth in their mind, and that either they told it or they didn’t. “But in social sciences, human beings are not like that,” he said. “I’m not getting at their true opinion; I’m trying to see how they talk about it, how they make sense of it in the company of others.”

He added that “meaning is simply what people create when people talk,” and the courtroom discussion was itself an example. 

The focus group study was not about uncovering a so-called true meaning — which he described as a problematic and misleading notion — but a “publicly expressed, publicly circulated” meaning, Lee said. Qualitative studies might not provide hard statistics, but were necessary to show the complexities and nuances of how people thought, he continued.

Lee cited a participant who was hesitant about chanting “Liberate Hong Kong” because of an initial belief that it was a call for independence. But that person had a change of heart after the protest movement grew to encompass ideals such as electoral democracy, he said.

Lee will continue his testimony on Wednesday.

The legacy of activist Edward Leung looms large over the trial.

Earlier in the day, the court heard from politics professor Eliza Lee, who was asked about a comment she made to the press last year. At the time, lawmakers from the pan-democratic camp were deliberating whether to resign en masse as an act of protest. Lee told Citizen News that they should take into account “strategic considerations” and remain in office.

Lead prosecutor Anthony Chau seized upon the old comment to bolster his argument on jailed activist Edward Leung, the creator of the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan. Chau had been trying to make the point that, in 2016, Leung used his run in a Legislative Council by-election as a strategy to overthrow the government.

After Chau raised the professor’s media comments in court, Lee asked: “Why do you have to cite me to ascertain what Edward Leung wanted to do? Are you suggesting I’m part of his cohort?”

“Even in your own view, going into LegCo — or not resigning from LegCo — can be a strategic consideration,” the prosecutor said.

“In that case, I’m the one under trial,” Lee replied in dismay. She was interrupted by Judge Pang, who quickly clarified that the professor was only assisting the court as an expert. 

The judge said the question was about whether Leung was using the legislature as a strategic tool to bring about certain changes; at a campaign rally, Leung had compared his supporters’ votes to weapons, she added.

Lee replied: “I would say Edward Leung was dramatising out of proportion.” She said that Leung’s political party at the time had no seats in the legislature, and winning the by-election would net him only a single seat.

“How can one person successfully getting one seat in the Hong Kong legislature allow him to overthrow the government?” Lee asked, noting that Leung offered no concrete action plan for separating Hong Kong from China. “If he wanted to overthrow the government, he would not want to get into LegCo.”

Malcolm X was an American separatist, according to the prosecution.

Leung’s campaign speech, delivered on February 20, 2016, cited the speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” by African-American activist Malcolm X. Eliza Lee had earlier testified that Malcolm X was not a secessionist, and Chau sought to rebut her claim.

Malcolm X was a vocal representative of the Nation of Islam, which was a Black nationalist and Black separatist organisation, Chau told the court. Lee was unconvinced.

“How much do we need to venture into the complicated history of American racial segregation?” Lee queried. “In order to do justice to what Black nationalism is, and what African-Americans at the time meant by separatism in the situation of apartheid, we have to go into great length.” 

She said the question could be answered only after looking deeply into the historical context of Black nationalism, and would run into an additional factual problem: when Malcolm X made the speech in March 1964, he had left the Nation of Islam.

“Can Malcolm X be regarded as a separatist?” Chau asked.

“Not in the sense of building a sovereign state,” Lee replied.

Judge Pang said she did not see the importance of the prosecutor’s line of questioning and brought it to a swift end.

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
Day 11: Hong Kong protesters flaunted colonial flag in 2010s. What does it mean today? court asks