A Hong Kong court has handed down guilty verdicts in the first trial under national security legislation imposed by Beijing, giving the public a glimpse of how cases that can bring prison sentences as long as life in prison will be handled.
Tong Ying-kit was found guilty of a charge of incitement to secession and another of engaging in terrorist activities by three High Court judges selected from a panel chosen by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Sentencing was set for 10 a.m. on Thursday.
The waiter, who has been held without bail for almost a year, pleaded not guilty over his actions at a protest in 2020 when he drove a motorcycle with a flag bearing the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” into a group of police officers. The phrase was banned under the security law even though it had been chanted by tens of thousands of people during earlier unrest.
The court said in a judgment posted online that “such display of the words was capable of inciting others to commit secession,” meaning separating Hong Kong from mainland China. It added that by riding his vehicle into the officers, Tong had “a view to intimidating the public in order to pursue political agenda.”
Since the national security law was imposed in the wake of large and often violent protests in the Asian financial hub in 2019, some 138 people have been arrested under it — about three-fourths for speech-related incidents. That number includes much of the former pro-democracy opposition in the Legislative Council and figures such as former student leader Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai, the 73-year-old media mogul whose pro-democracy newspaper was recently forced to close.
The Group of Seven nations said Beijing failed to meet the terms of its handover agreement with the U.K. by forcing the legislation on Hong Kong. In response, the U.S. has rolled back some special privileges granted to the city and sanctioned senior officials who oversee the territory.
The security law bars secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces. Like Tong, many of the people arrested under it have been detained without bail before their trials, which marks a departure from Hong Kong’s common law traditions and is similar to how the judicial system of mainland China works.
Hong Kong officials say the legislation targets only an “extremely small minority,” but human rights groups and foreign governments say it is being wielded to erode political freedoms. Tong was among several people arrested during protests against the law on July 1, 2020 — just after it had been handed down without any input from local lawmakers or the public.
During the trial, one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Lau Chi-pang, a professor of Chinese history at Lingnan University, said the Chinese definitions of “liberate” and “revolution” established more than 1,000 years ago suggested a desire to overthrow the government.
Defense witnesses testified that the slogan had several meanings. Tong’s defense said in its closing argument that the slogan was “too vague” to incite secession.