Trial debates Tong Ying-kit’s perception of ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ slogan

Here are the main points from the trial’s Day 7:

  • Hongkongers who used the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” mostly understood it the same way, a professor testified for the prosecution.
  • Defence lawyers fought hard against his conclusion.
  • The police detailed how the slogan was used between June 2019 and July 2020.
  • A forensic scientist said defendant Tong Ying-kit was travelling at around 20km/h on his motorcycle and applied emergency brakes before his collision with police.

Defence lawyers for Tong Ying-kit, the first person charged under Hong Kong’s national security law, on Tuesday tried to find inconsistencies in the testimony of a history professor who asserted that the meaning of a protest slogan under debate was “highly stable”.

The precise meaning of “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” has become central to the case, which is heard in the High Court before three designated national security judges. Prosecutors argue that the slogan is a call to overthrow the Hong Kong government and its masters in Beijing.

Tong, 24, is accused of driving a motorcycle into a group of police officers on July 1, 2020, and injuring three of them. At the time of the collision, his vehicle was flying a flag bearing the words of the slogan. He denies charges of terrorism, inciting secession and dangerous driving.

On the seventh day of the 15-day trial, prosecutors told the court that they were approaching the end of their case and had only a final witness left to summon. Defence lawyers planned to tell the court there was no case to answer, meaning they believed the prosecution’s evidence was not strong enough to convict their client.

Lead defence lawyer challenges the idea that the slogan always has the same meaning.

The defence grilled a history professor on Tuesday regarding his contention that the words in the protest slogan held the same meaning for most people throughout history, an argument that drew from ancient Chinese texts.

Defence counsel noted that Tong was only a mediocre student of Chinese, having failed or barely passed the language during Form One to Five. He also failed Chinese history in Form One and Two, scraped through in Form Three, and did not continue his studies in that subject.

Professor Lau Chi-pang, also an associate vice-president of Lingnan University, stuck to his conclusion under cross-examination, saying that it did not require extensive training in history to understand the words as he did, because there was a customary meaning and usage “accepted by everyone” which was “highly stable”.

The slogan’s creator Edward Leung was out to appeal to his supporters of a similar educational background and must have assumed everyone knew what he meant when he used the expression in 2016, the professor added.

Defence counsel Clive Grossman SC probed the witness’ stance: “From the time that the slogan was created… are you saying that everyone who used it, chanted it, saw it understood it the exact same way?”

“I suppose so, because the words have their customary meaning and usage,” Lau said.

Grossman seized upon the answer and pointed to Lau’s expert report, in which the professor had written that Leung might have perceived the slogan differently from the defendant Tong. Lau replied that the meaning would remain the same in “ordinary situations” when no other criteria or factors affected his judgment.

The defence lawyer raised another example: on July 27, 2019, the professor was himself present at a rally that had the theme “Reclaim Yuen Long”, which shared the same Chinese characters as the slogan — gwong fuk (光復). Lau said he was in the vicinity of Yuen Long to express concern and care towards his students, but did not participate in the rally.

“Did ‘Reclaim Yuen Long’ mean that Yuen Long should secede from Hong Kong?” Grossman asked.

“I didn’t know the organiser, I didn’t know what stance it took,” Lau replied, and agreed that the term gwong fuk (光復) did not necessarily mean secession.

Concluding his three-day court appearance, Lau repeated his point about words having two layers of meaning: a textual or semantic meaning that was unchanged and understood by the public, and a contextual meaning that depended on the time and place the words were used.

The defendant’s motorcycle was travelling at roughly 20km/h before crashing, a forensic expert says.

The court also heard from forensic scientist Tsang Cheuk-nam, who analysed footage of Tong’s crash and found that the motorcycle was travelling at 20km/h before the crash, plus or minus 2km/h. Tsang had determined the speed based on a video segment lasting for 0.3 seconds.

He said the video segment was too short for him to tell if the motorcycle accelerated, but he noticed that the brake light at the back was turned on.

Tsang referred to a government estimate that it would take roughly 0.9 seconds for a driver to react to danger, and located a moment before Tong appeared in the video, which he said represented “the probable moment that the driver perceived the danger of hitting the police officers and applied emergency braking”.

Senior Public Prosecutor Ivan Cheung said it was unclear from the video that Tong had slammed on the brakes. Tsang agreed he had assumed Tong had braked, a conclusion not based on what could be seen in the video evidence. He added that it was an assumption based on his experience analysing similar traffic cases.

Police analysed the usage trend of the slogan and its appearance alongside other crimes.

Another prosecution witness, Senior Inspector Eddie Cheung, testified to a sharp increase in the trend of the “Liberate Hong Kong” slogan appearing together with secessionist and subversive activities between April and June last year, the period immediately before the national security law came into force.

Cheung, along with eight other officers, had been in charge of examining 2,177 videos covering June 9, 2019, to July 1, 2020. The slogan was used on 218 days out of the 389-day period, he said.

Their report drew a distinction between the slogan appearing on its own and accompanying lawbreaking activities. The goal was to “analyse whether the slogan has any relation with the other circumstances that appeared”, the officer said, referring to violence, unlawfulness, secession and subversion.

In most cases, the figures fell in early 2020 as Hong Kong was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a spike was observed in instances of the slogan appearing together with activities of secession and subversion, the court heard.

The prosecution is expected to wrap up its case on Wednesday.

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