Slogan creator Edward Leung wanted to ‘build a nation for Hongkongers’, court told

Here are some important moments from Day 6 of the trial:

  • The prosecution interpreted the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” by referring to 2019 protest videos.
  • The slogan’s creator, Edward Leung, believed in Hong Kong independence and violent resistance, said a prosecution expert witness.
  • Defence lawyers challenged the expert on how to understand words.

Lawyers and an academic placed a protest slogan under the microscope on Monday at Hong Kong’s first national security trial, locking horns over the exact meaning of “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”.

Both the prosecution and the defence have prepared arsenals of scholarly arguments to examine the expression in detail. On his part, history professor Lau Chi-pang is drawing on an ancient Chinese dictionary and news footage from 2019 to justify his case that the slogan is a literal call for regime change and is directly related to advocating independence. The defence, meanwhile, is giving a more flexible interpretation by borrowing the approach of social sciences.

Defendant Tong Ying-kit, 24, stands accused of driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers on July 1, 2020, in Wan Chai and injuring three of them. As the trial entered its sixth day at the start of the week, the prosecution shifted the focus away from Tong’s vehicle and towards a black flag attached to it on the day of the collision. 

That flag bore the protest slogan in both Chinese and English, and forms the basis of the charge of inciting secession levelled against Tong. He is also being prosecuted for terrorism and dangerous driving; he has denied all the charges and is facing trial before three High Court judges designated to hear national security cases. 

Tong displayed the slogan less than 24 hours after the national security law was passed. The Hong Kong government has warned the public against using the expression, and the court’s eventual ruling on its meaning may have far-reaching implications for the millions of Hongkongers who have chanted it since pro-democracy protests began two years ago. 

Edward Leung said in 2016 he wanted to ‘establish a country’ for Hongkongers, a video shows. 

On Monday, the history professor Lau took up from where he left off last week as the prosecution’s expert witness. He said his understanding of the slogan was based on a historical perspective but also took into account recent events. Its creator Edward Leung, an activist now in jail, believed in building a nation for Hongkongers, Lau said.

Leung came up with the slogan in 2016 to promote his electoral candidacy for Hong Kong’s legislature. In a campaign speech, a video clip of which was shown in court, Leung credited Hong Kong Indigenous founder Ray Wong for inspiring him. Leung said he had joined the political group at Wong’s behest and later became the group’s spokesman.

“[Leung] agreed with what Ray Wong told him, including violent resistance, overthrowing the Hong Kong communist regime, bringing change to all Hongkongers and establishing a country of their own,” Lau testified.

Leung adopted the words of Wong as his own; they became a summary of his own political ideals, which were reflected in the subsequent creation of the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”, the professor continued.

As a political body, Hong Kong Indigenous believed that the city was a “real entity” not related to neighbouring territories or peoples. The group wanted Hongkongers to be in charge and “believed that the People’s Republic of China has no right to deal with the affairs of Hong Kong”, Lau added. 

Leung has been serving time for rioting in relation to unrest in Mong Kok in 2016. He was sentenced to six years behind bars and is expected to be released next year. Wong, who faced similar charges over the Mong Kok incident, fled to Germany in 2017 and remains in exile.

The slogan contains a pro-independence, anti-China agenda, the professor says.

Lau bolstered his interpretation of the slogan by citing a report that tallied its use during the 2019 protests.

The report, compiled by Senior Inspector Eddie Cheung and other police officers, noted that the slogan was used on 218 out of 389 days between June 9, 2019, and July 1, 2020. The team of officers arrived at the figures after going through 2,177 video clips, the court heard. The saying often appeared together with unlawful and violent activities, as well as other expressions advocating secession and subversion, the team reported.

“Ths slogan is often accompanied by other chants such as: expel the Chinese communists, Hong Kong independence is the only way out… as well as vandalism and activities that breach public order,” Lau said.

Prosecutors added that while the slogan was created in 2016, it was not widely used again until July 21, 2019, when protesters marched to Beijing’s office in Hong Kong and splattered black ink on the national emblem on the building’s facade. To prove their point, the prosecutors played a compilation of news footage that showed the slogan being used.

Based on the footage, Lau drew the conclusion that the slogan was “directly related to repelling the Chinese Communist Party and advocating Hong Kong independence”.

At one point, the defence questioned whether the news clips were relevant to Lau’s testimony. Aside from his role teaching history, Lau is also Lingnan University’s associate vice-president and a member of its governing council.

Judge Esther Toh allowed the prosecution to go ahead, saying that the footage was “part of what Lau considered when structuring his opinion”.

Do the meaning of words change over time? Prosecution and defence lawyers disagree.

On Monday afternoon, the courtroom discussion took a turn for the abstract as both sides argued over the methodology for understanding words. The defence has yet to put forward its case in full, but during cross-examination, Clive Grossman SC appeared skeptical of Lau’s historical approach.

When challenged, Lau said that language could not sever its connection to the past. “We must acknowledge and respect the customary usage of words, unless there is a strong reason or force to change their meaning,” he said. In the case of gwong fuk (光復) and gak ming (革命), translated as “liberate” and “revolution”, no such change had taken place in Hong Kong in the past few years, he said.

Grossman asked whether a word’s meaning would depend on the immediate context of its use. Lau replied that there were two layers of meaning: one based on the proper and customary usage in history, and the other hinging on the linguistic context when it was used.

Later in the 15-day trial, the defence will call two expert witnesses of its own: Eliza Lee, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, and Francis Lee, a journalism professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lau, who received the defence’s written arguments in advance, said his two counterparts were taking a different approach, that of “social sciences and social linguistics”. He did not reject them outright, saying that he was not an expert in social sciences and so could not tell if their approach was right or wrong. 

In his own assessment, Lau relied on the ancient tome Shuowen Jiezi (說文解字), which he said was the first dictionary in Chinese history. Taken together, Chinese-language dictionaries provided a “stable and accurate system concerning the meaning of words”, which he said was misunderstood by the defence.

In its earlier written submission, the defence said the term gak ming (革命) could be used to mean “revolution” in a looser sense, such as in marketing slogans for soft drinks and beauty products.

“I acknowledge that there are non-political senses of the word in modern use, such as scientific revolution, industrial revolution, or even minor breakthroughs,” Lau said in response, but doubled down on his point that the political meaning of the word came first in the dictionary.

Lau’s cross-examination will resume on Tuesday morning.

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