A Hong Kong court convicted a former waiter of terrorism and inciting secession on Tuesday in the first trial conducted under a national security law that was imposed by China to stamp out dissent.
The watershed ruling lays down a new marker in the city’s changing legal landscape and confirms certain slogans are now outlawed in the international finance hub.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, was charged with terrorism for driving a motorbike into three police officers and secession for flying a protest flag during a rally on July 1 last year, the day after the national security law was enacted.
The flag read “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, a ubiquitous slogan during the huge and often violent pro-democracy protests that convulsed the city two years ago.
The 15-day trial was heard without a jury — a significant departure from Hong Kong’s common law tradition — and was decided by three judges handpicked by the city’s leader to try national security crimes.
In a written ruling, the judges said the flag’s slogan was “capable of inciting others to commit secession”.
The charge of terrorism was met because crashing his motorbike into police officers “seriously jeopardised public safety or security”.
Tong will be sentenced at a later date, and faces up to life in prison.
The ruling has profound implications for future national security cases.
More than 60 people have been charged under the law, including some of the city’s best-known democracy activists such as Jimmy Lai, owner of the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper. Most are now in jail awaiting trial.
Legal analysts said Tuesday’s ruling showed Hong Kong’s judiciary is adopting a broad interpretation of the security law and that the courts would become more like those in authoritarian mainland China, especially for political cases.
“The whole system, from the administration to the law enforcement to the judiciary, has reached an alignment,” said Eric Lai, an expert on Hong Kong’s legal system at Georgetown Law School.
Surya Deva, an expert at City University of Hong Kong’s law school, said “all institutions and legal processes will be geared to achieve certain pre-defined outcomes” in national security-related cases.
In mainland China, opaque courts answer to the Communist Party and conviction is all but guaranteed, especially in political or national security cases.
Hong Kong maintains an internationally respected common law system that is the bedrock of its business-hub status.
Days of Tong’s trial were spent on the flag, with university professors called by both sides to explain the slogan’s meaning.
Defence experts argued the slogan meant many things to different people in what was a leaderless protest movement that included a broad spectrum of views, from people advocating genuine independence to those wanting greater democracy and police accountability.
The prosecution argued that the slogan had clear separatist connotations and that Tong’s decision to drive his bike into the police met the security law’s definition of terrorism.
Tong’s case was unusual in that he was one of the only people arrested under the security law who was accused of an explicitly violent act.
The vast majority of those awaiting prosecution were arrested for expressing political views that authorities say are now illegal.
Democracy activists and many Western nations say the security law is reshaping Hong Kong in China’s authoritarian image.
China says it was needed to restore stability after 2019’s protests.
The security law has since radically transformed the political and legal landscape of the city, which China promised could keep key liberties and autonomy after its 1997 return from British colonial rule.
China has jurisdiction over some cases, toppling Hong Kong’s legal firewall, and has allowed its security agents to operate openly in the city for the first time.
It also allows for cases to be tried by judges instead of juries and bail is largely denied for those arrested.
Tong pleaded not guilty to all charges and did not take the stand during the trial.