Ma Chun-man under arrest in October 2020 (file photo)

Slogan-chanter wanted to test free speech protections under Hong Kong security law, court told

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Defendant Ma Chun-man believed that Hong Kong’s national security law protected free speech and wanted to test that for himself, his lawyer argued in court.
  • Ma expressed support for Hong Kong independence on 20 separate occasions last year, which his lawyer conceded was “immature and childish”.
  • The judge was sceptical about whether Ma’s words could be dismissed as empty talk, given the suspect’s multiple arrests over similar conduct.

A Hong Kong man standing trial for airing independence views had “no intention to incite secession” and was merely testing free speech protections under the city’s national security law, his lawyers told the District Court on Tuesday.

Ma Chun-man, 30, is the second person to be tried under the 15-month-old national security law, on one count of inciting secession. He allegedly chanted slogans, held up placards and spoke publicly in favour of Hong Kong independence on 20 occasions between August 15 and November 22 last year, according to the prosecution.

Concluding the four-day trial, defence counsel Edwin Choy said that Ma might have acted immaturely but there was no criminal intent. His client was only trying to prove the national security law was “no scourge” and that free speech was still protected, Choy said.

The defendant’s various expressions of protest were just “empty slogans” without substance, and he never took actual steps to bring about Hong Kong independence, Choy added. 

Nor did he ever gain any followers despite drawing the moniker “Captain America 2.0” for his choice of protest outfit or shouting himself hoarse at rallies, which he attended regularly, the defence argued, citing video evidence submitted by the prosecutors.

District Judge Stanley Chan focused his line of questioning on Ma’s intent, noting that the defendant continued to chant independence slogans even after he was arrested time and again. 

The judge said Ma had made a “unilateral interpretation” of what was lawful and what was not, as though he were a legal expert. He said that not even judges or barristers would dare come to such conclusions so soon after the national security law came into effect.

The law was enacted on June 30 last year, and Ma has been remanded in custody since November. He will receive his verdict on October 25 and could be jailed for up to seven years upon conviction. 

The concept of ‘incitement’ again plays a key part in a national security trial.

In his closing submissions on Tuesday, Choy said that Ma wanted to be a “touchstone” – meaning a test of quality – for Hong Kong’s national security law, which guarantees freedom of speech and other fundamental rights.

At a rally last year, Ma said the offence of subversion required evidence of concrete actions, and that words alone could not violate the national security law, according to evidence cited by Choy. “I want to prove to everyone that the slogans I shout are part of Hongkongers’ civil liberties,” Ma was quoted as saying at another rally.

Chan asked: “What gave him the right to act as a touchstone?”

The judge noted that Ma had been arrested six times in the period specified by the prosecution. Following one such arrest in October, Ma spoke to the press after getting bail and compared his experience to getting a slap on the wrist for jaywalking, which Chan said seemed to show he was not taking the law seriously.

Choy conceded that his client had an “immature understanding” of the law and did not fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. However, he argued that key to the case was whether Ma had an intent to incite others when shouting the slogans, which he said the prosecution failed to prove.

“When he shouted, his intent was not to ask others to commit secession. It was just to get others to shout together with him and to vent their feelings,” Choy said. 

“The defendant believed that Hongkongers were free to say anything they wanted… He didn’t think he was breaking the law.”

Choy also downplayed Ma’s more militant slogans – such as calls for armed resistance – which the defence lawyer said were meant as “colourful” exaggerations unsupported by any solid planning. The judge countered that Ma might have meant the words in a more literal sense, given he had used them on so many occasions.

“If you go to the Capitol Hill of some other country and shout anti-government slogans, even without banners or props, I believe you will get arrested,” the judge added.

Choy drew attention to the fact that Ma’s slogans were almost always ignored, but the argument was dismissed by the judge. The prosecution was not required to show that anyone was influenced by Ma’s actions in order to prove him guilty of incitement, Chan said. “Even if onlookers consider him immature or deranged, that doesn’t change things.”

Mere words without a complete proposal is still enough to incite, prosecutors say.

Last week, prosecutors argued that Ma championed the cause of Hong Kong independence by chanting slogans, displaying placards and giving interviews to the media. They said that Ma also urged the public to prepare for an armed uprising and called for Hong Kong independence to be discussed in schools.

Lead prosecutor Laura Ng said on Tuesday that Ma’s words alone could constitute a criminal act, even if he had nothing to back it up. His words had to be viewed in context, and his 20 appearances in question were often connected to Hong Kong’s protest chronology in 2019, for example, marking the anniversary of an important date, she said.

“There was a pattern to his choice of location. In the beginning, he chose shopping centres, but later he went to landmark locations such as the government headquarters and police stations,” Ng told the court. “He wanted to attract eyeballs.”

The defence agreed Ma’s conduct was meant to draw attention, but argued that the national security law was not meant to “prohibit acts that are trivial, silly, or for the sole purpose of attention-seeking”.

Ma only wanted to chant slogans “for his amusement” and became engrossed in the activity, Choy said, a claim which drew a quick rebuke from the judge. 

“What’s so amusing about it?” Chan asked, saying that Ma seemed to be serious about what he was saying.

Earlier in the trial, the prosecution established that Ma had set up a Telegram channel for the purpose of promoting protests, and police had found a notebook with the words “Captain America’s diary of resistance” at his home. 

Prosecutors relied mostly on what Ma said at the rallies, while the defence said that the words on social media and in the notebook could not be definitively attributed to Ma.

By Holmes Chan