HONG KONG – On Tuesday, the first person tried under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law was found guilty of secessionism and terrorism, in a ruling closely watched for clues about how the law will be applied as China tightens its grip on the city long known for its freedoms.
Tong Ying-kit was charged with inciting secession and terrorism last year after crashing his motorcycle into a group of police officers while carrying a flag with the banned protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Rights groups have condemned his conviction, and many are bracing for more such trials, as more than 100 people have been arrested under the legislation as part of Beijing’s increased crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong in the aftermath of months of anti-government protests in 2019.
Tong, a 24-year-old restaurant worker, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, claiming that the slogan does not call for secession. He now faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, but his attorneys are expected to argue for a lesser sentence during his sentencing hearing on Thursday.
The new national security legislation not only resulted in the charges against Tong, but it also outlined the procedure for the trial. The proceedings, which concluded on July 20, were held in the Hong Kong High Court without a jury, in accordance with rules that allow an exception from Hong Kong’s common law system if state secrets must be protected, foreign forces are involved, or jurors’ personal safety must be protected. Judges appointed by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam preside over trials.
In reading the verdict, Justice Esther Toh stated that Tong “engaged in terrorist activities that caused or intended to cause grave harm to society” in pursuit of a political agenda.
His actions were an act of violence aimed at coercing the central and Hong Kong governments and intimidating the public, she said, and carrying the flag was an act of incitement to secession.
Tong remained silent during the verdict reading. As he was led out of the chamber, he waved to his parents and others in the gallery.
Tong’s defense attorney has stated that it is impossible to prove that Tong was inciting secession simply by using the slogan.
The defense also claimed that there was no evidence that Tong committed the act on purpose, that he attempted to avoid colliding with officers, and that his actions could not be classified as terrorism because there was no serious violence or harm to society.
Amnesty International immediately condemned the verdict, calling it “the beginning of the end of freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”
“During protests, people should be free to use political slogans, and Tong Ying-kit should not be punished for exercising his right to free speech,” Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said in an emailed statement. “It is especially clear that he should never have been charged with a ‘national security’ offense punishable by life in prison.”
Beijing has dismissed the criticism, claiming that it is simply restoring order in the city and instituting the same types of national security safeguards as other countries.
Hong Kong has long enjoyed freedoms not seen on the Chinese mainland, and Beijing has pledged to protect those rights and the city’s democratic system for at least 50 years after the territory was returned to China from British colonial rule in 1997. However, in recent years, Beijing has sought to exert greater influence over the city, and when protests erupted in 2019 in response to those moves, China tightened the screws even further.
While Hong Kong has its own Legislative Council, Beijing’s ceremonial legislature imposed the national security law on the city after determining that the Legislative Council would be unable to pass the legislation due to political opposition.
China’s legislature also mandated changes to the council’s makeup in order to ensure an overwhelming pro-Beijing majority, and only those it deems to be “patriots” can hold office.
Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s last remaining pro-democracy newspaper, went out of business last month, and several of its journalists and executives have been arrested as part of the broader crackdown. Secessionist messages in library books and school curricula have also been investigated.
All of the city’s major pro-democracy figures have been imprisoned, fled abroad for asylum, or have been intimidated into silence.