Breaking News
Investing Pro 0
Extended Sale! Save on premium data with Claim 60% OFF

Free speech or secession? "Liberate Hong Kong" at heart of landmark case

Published Jul 24, 2021 11:04PM ET Updated Jul 25, 2021 01:35AM ET
Saved. See Saved Items.
This article has already been saved in your Saved Items
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Police officers escort a prison van which is carrying Tong Ying-kit, the first person charged under the new national security law, as he leaves West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts, in Hong Kong, China July 6, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Three Hong Kong judges will rule on Tuesday whether the protest slogan "Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Times" is a call for secession when they deliver a verdict on charges against a man arrested at a demonstration last year.

The landmark ruling could have long-term implications for how a national security law that China imposed on its freest city a year ago against secession, terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign forces reshapes its common law traditions, some legal scholars say.

Activists say a ruling to outlaw the slogan will tighten limits on free speech.

The slogan was chanted during pro-democracy protests, posted online, scrawled on walls and printed on everything from pamphlets, books, stickers and T-shirts to coffee mugs.

During the 15-day trial of 24-year-old waiter Tong Ying-kit, the court heard how he rode a motorcycle, carrying a black flag bearing the slogan into several riot police in central Hong Kong on July 1 last year.

Tong was the first person charged under the national security law.

Lead government prosecutor Anthony Chau argued in court that this was a terrorist act, and that Tong had sought to incite people to secession, both "grave" offences under the security law that could bring prison terms of several years to life, if convicted.

Tong has pleaded not guilty to charges of terrorism, incitement to commit secession and dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm. Chau did not respond to requests for comment. Defence barrister Clive Grossman declined to comment.

A cornerstone of the trial has been the prosecution's argument that slogan "connotes Hong Kong independence" - a position unacceptable to China, which considers the financial hub and former British colony an "inalienable" part of its territory.

During the protests that began in 2019 and paralysed the city, millions took to the streets to oppose a perceived clampdown by China's Communist Party leaders on the city's constitutionally enshrined freedoms. The slogan was ubiquitous.

When Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, China's Communist Party leadership pledged to allow the city to maintain its judicial system and retain a wide degree of autonomy and freedoms as part of a binding deal with Britain.

Critics say those freedoms are being trampled, an assertion authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong reject.


In the court hearing, the meaning of the slogan was fiercely debated in exchanges that drew on eclectic references to Chinese emperors, Marxism-Leninism, the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai, Malcolm X, rampaging Mongol barbarians, and former nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

The prosecution told the court the slogan was coined in 2016 by Hong Kong activist Edward Leung, a well-known advocate for Hong Kong independence. Leung is serving a six-year jail term for rioting and could not be reached for comment. There was no immediate comment from two lawyers who represented him.

An expert witness for the prosecution, history professor Lau Chi-pang, testified that the first portion of the Chinese slogan, translated as "liberate", or "reclaim", had been used throughout Chinese history from the Qin to the Qing dynasties, and that the meaning, to recover lost territory or to expel an enemy "has not changed throughout a thousand years".

Lau told the court the words in the slogan, taken alone, or separately, could have but one meaning: "They related to separating the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from the People's Republic of China."

Lau also referred to a rally on July 21, 2019, when protesters, who chanted the slogan, damaged a national emblem outside China's representative Liaison Office in Hong Kong. The conduct and use of the slogan that day had "the objective of rejecting the governance of the People’s Republic of China", the prosecution told the court.

Lau declined to comment.

Tong declined to stand as a witness. The defence called two academics, political science professor Eliza Lee and Francis Lee, a professor and expert in political communication. They are not related.

In a report drawing on hundreds of interviews with protesters on site and over the phone, as well as a statistical analysis of more than 25 million online posts, Francis Lee said there was "no substantial linkage" or correlation between the slogan and independence, as maintained by Lau.

"The subject slogan was understood, really, by many people in many different ways," Francis Lee told the court.

Eliza Lee told the court the slogan was meant to “unite freedom-loving people of all ages”. She accepted, however, that it could have pro-independence connotations to some people.

Eliza Lee did not respond to a request for comment. Francis Lee declined to comment.

At one point prosecutor Chau sought to draw parallels between Edward Leung and the U.S. civil rights leader Malcolm X, asking Eliza Lee whether she would consider him to be a separatist?

"How much do we need to venture into the complicated history of racial segregation in order to understand this," Lee answered, before one judge, Anthea Pang, interjected.

"Whether Malcolm X was or could be regarded as a secessionist or separatist is a question far far removed from the issues presented in front of the court."

In his closing speech on Tuesday, Grossman said protesters worldwide often held up signs without facing prosecution, and that Tong should be acquitted if the meaning of the slogan was open-ended.

Grossman said Lau had an "untenable, rigid, mechanical view of history" that paid no heed to rhetoric, and the meaning of the slogan could not be pinned down as Lau was trying to do.

Pang said the court would consider whether the "natural and reasonable effect" of the slogan could indeed incite others to secession, as well as Tong's criminal intent, in making its ruling.

Free speech or secession? "Liberate Hong Kong" at heart of landmark case

Related Articles

Add a Comment

Comment Guidelines

We encourage you to use comments to engage with other users, share your perspective and ask questions of authors and each other. However, in order to maintain the high level of discourse we’ve all come to value and expect, please keep the following criteria in mind:  

  •            Enrich the conversation, don’t trash it.

  •           Stay focused and on track. Only post material that’s relevant to the topic being discussed. 

  •           Be respectful. Even negative opinions can be framed positively and diplomatically. Avoid profanity, slander or personal attacks directed at an author or another user. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination will not be tolerated.

  • Use standard writing style. Include punctuation and upper and lower cases. Comments that are written in all caps and contain excessive use of symbols will be removed.
  • NOTE: Spam and/or promotional messages and comments containing links will be removed. Phone numbers, email addresses, links to personal or business websites, Skype/Telegram/WhatsApp etc. addresses (including links to groups) will also be removed; self-promotional material or business-related solicitations or PR (ie, contact me for signals/advice etc.), and/or any other comment that contains personal contact specifcs or advertising will be removed as well. In addition, any of the above-mentioned violations may result in suspension of your account.
  • Doxxing. We do not allow any sharing of private or personal contact or other information about any individual or organization. This will result in immediate suspension of the commentor and his or her account.
  • Don’t monopolize the conversation. We appreciate passion and conviction, but we also strongly believe in giving everyone a chance to air their point of view. Therefore, in addition to civil interaction, we expect commenters to offer their opinions succinctly and thoughtfully, but not so repeatedly that others are annoyed or offended. If we receive complaints about individuals who take over a thread or forum, we reserve the right to ban them from the site, without recourse.
  • Only English comments will be allowed.
  • Any comment you publish, together with your profile, will be public on and may be indexed and available through third party search engines, such as Google.

Perpetrators of spam or abuse will be deleted from the site and prohibited from future registration at’s discretion.

Write your thoughts here
Are you sure you want to delete this chart?
Post also to:
Replace the attached chart with a new chart ?
Your ability to comment is currently suspended due to negative user reports. Your status will be reviewed by our moderators.
Please wait a minute before you try to comment again.
Thanks for your comment. Please note that all comments are pending until approved by our moderators. It may therefore take some time before it appears on our website.
Comments (3)
Kaveh Sun
Kaveh Sun Jul 25, 2021 12:04PM ET
Saved. See Saved Items.
This comment has already been saved in your Saved Items
Judges will convict him. If they dont, China will replace them all.
Necleus Electron
Necleus Electron Jul 25, 2021 9:18AM ET
Saved. See Saved Items.
This comment has already been saved in your Saved Items
some western nations are stirring all these s. with hk with sole purpose of going against China.
David David
David9 Jul 25, 2021 2:55AM ET
Saved. See Saved Items.
This comment has already been saved in your Saved Items
That is definitely a secession slogan...
Are you sure you want to delete this chart?
Replace the attached chart with a new chart ?
Your ability to comment is currently suspended due to negative user reports. Your status will be reviewed by our moderators.
Please wait a minute before you try to comment again.
Add Chart to Comment
Confirm Block

Are you sure you want to block %USER_NAME%?

By doing so, you and %USER_NAME% will not be able to see any of each other's's posts.

%USER_NAME% was successfully added to your Block List

Since you’ve just unblocked this person, you must wait 48 hours before renewing the block.

Report this comment

I feel that this comment is:

Comment flagged

Thank You!

Your report has been sent to our moderators for review
Continue with Google
Sign up with Email