Hong Kong — In an historic ruling, a 24-year-old man became the first person convicted in Hong Kong under China's expansive and contentious national security law on Tuesday. Leon Tong Ying-kit, a former restaurant cook, volunteered as a medic during the 2019 pro-democracy protests that rocked the city. He was convicted of terrorism and secession and faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
A bike, a black flag and a crash
Police arrested Tong on July 1, 2020, just hours after China's national security law came into effect. He was riding a motorcycle through the streets of the city, displaying a black flag that fluttered in the wind with the slogan, "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times." He then crashed into a group of policemen. Tong claims he tried to avoid hitting them.
Critics say China's law, whichwas tailor-made to bring Hong Kong's massive pro-democracy movement to heel. They say it is being used to and muzzle freedom of speech — institutions that were protected or allowed in Hong Kong for decades, unlike in mainland China.
The guilty verdict was widely expected by both Hong Kong's Beijing-backed government and pro-democracy activists and their supporters.
The high court's three judges were handpicked by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, who ultimately serves with the support of Beijing and the Chinese China's Communist Party.
Calls for secession or freedom of speech?
The ultimate focus of Tuesday's hearing was the protest slogan, "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times."
The day after Tong's arrest last year, the government banned the phrase.
"We are… sure that the defendant fully understood the slogan to bear the meaning of Hong Kong independence and by displaying, in the manner he did, the flag bearing the slogan, the defendant intended to convey the secessionist meaning of the slogan as understood by him to others and he intended to incite others to commit acts separating the HKSAR (Hong Kong) from the PRC (People's Republic of China)," the three judges said in their ruling on Tuesday.
"This verdict violates the spirit of the rule of law," the former pro-democracy politician and activist Nathan Law, who currently lives in exile in the United Kingdom, said in a statement. He said that Tong should have been entitled to a jury trial, rather than one in front of "government handpicked" judges.
"The judicial system in Hong Kong is weaponized to suppress. Our right to free expression is severely curtailed," Law said.
The ruling sets a precedent for similar verdicts to be issued for more than 60 other pro-democracy activists who have been arrested since the national security law took effect, including former politicians, lawyers, health workers, union leaders and a journalist, who have been critical of Hong Kong's government and, by extension, China's leaders.
Haley Ott contributed to this report.