Pro-democracy protester Tong Ying-kit was found guilty by a Hong Kong court of “inciting others” to commit terrorism and secession in a case that is the first indication of how the region’s new national security law will be used to suppress dissident free expression in the historically liberal city.
The 24-year-old restaurant worker had been charged with terrorism and secessionism after he crashed his motorbike into a police vehicle after driving around with a flag bearing a popular pro-democracy slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
Although running into police officers with a motorbike would be considered a serious crime in most countries, it was the flag that Tong was waving that Chinese authorities viewed as the truly grave offense.
He was tried in the Hong Kong High Court with no jury, but by a panel of three judges selected by Hong Kong Executive Carrie Lam.
This is because Hong Kong’s national security law, which was passed by Beijing a year ago and prohibits acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreigner entities, is exempted from Hong Kong’s common law system, a remnant of British rule in which Hongkongers take great pride and which afford them some of the strongest free speech protections in Asia.
That is, they used to.
Everything has changed since July 1, 2020, when the law was put into effect and Hong Kong authorities began arresting pro-democracy advocates in mass. Tong’s case has confirmed to the international community that the Chinese Communist Party is determined to bring Hong Kong into the fold of its tight-gripped authoritarianism.
“I think we would be kidding ourselves if we think the national security law would not be enforced in the way the Chinese government conceived it,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, told The New York Times. “The idea that the Hong Kong judiciary would be able to moderate it would be a mistake.”
There are over 60 other pro-democracy activists and politicians currently awaiting their own trials under the new law, which subjectively defines certain speech as amounting to subversion and terrorism. This “speech is violence” provision formed a large part of the case against Tong for carrying the banner with the pro-democracy slogan.
The conviction was sharply condemned by international human rights advocates, including Amnesty International. Tong’s formal sentencing will take place at a later date, but the crimes he was convicted of carry a maximum penalty of life in prison.
“To convict Tong Ying-kit of ‘secession’ for displaying a flag bearing a widely used political slogan is a violation of international law, under which expression must not be criminalized unless it poses a concrete threat,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director, said in a statement. “This feels like the beginning of the end for freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”
In Hong Kong, as well as in the United States, words like “terrorism,” “anti-government,” and “secessionism” are increasingly used in an Orwellian manner to disparage those speaking in favor of freedom, civil rights, and self-governance.
As the January 6 hearing in Congress gears up, it is certainly sobering to hear that the details of Tong’s case bear striking similarities to the way in which the Capitol Hill rioters have been characterized, along with the thousands of peaceful protesters on the National Mall that day who were lumped in with those who actually breached the building. Like Tong Ying-kit, many of those arrested have been repeatedly denied bail, remain in jail more than seven months later, and are unlikely to go to trial anytime soon, all in clear violation of their due process rights.
This is all happening as those on the left increasingly deride basic constitutional rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process as thinly veiled white supremacist dog whistles and talking points rather than the legal framework of our free nation.
Make no mistake: In the same way that many U.S. politicians justify the aggressive, non-transparent pursuit of charges against January 6 rioters as necessary for safety and national security, so too does Beijing justify its encroachment on the free speech and other civil liberties of Hong Kong’s vocal populace.
It is clear that we are watching in real-time the iron fist of suppression slam down on Hong Kong, but equally worrying, we appear to also be observing the same phenomenon from a much closer vantage point here at home.