The Hong Kong government has declared that protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times,” is pro-independence, secessionist and subversive, and thus criminalised under the newly-enacted national security law.

In a statement released on Thursday night, the government claimed that the popular slogan among pro-democracy demonstrators is a call for Hong Kong independence. The authorities claimed that the wording also has the connotation of separating the HKSAR from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), changing the legal status of the SAR or subverting the state power, it said.

protest march five demands 1 July 2020 causeway bay
Photo: KH/United Social Press.

“The HKSAR government strongly condemns any acts which challenge the sovereignty, unification and territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China. The [national security law] prohibits secession, subversion of state power and other acts and activities which endanger national security. The HKSAR government calls upon members of the public not to defy the law,” the statement read.

The official remark came a day after 10 people were arrested for violating the national security law at a protest on the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China. Some arrested persons possessed and displayed flags, banners and printed materials that featured slogans such as “Hong Kong independence” and “One nation, one Hong Kong.”

A man who sported a flag with the phrase “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” on his motorbike was also apprehended for breaking the new law passed by Beijing and enacted in Hong Kong on Tuesday night.

Responding on Thursday evening, human rights lawyer Mark Daly told HKFP that the government statement would prove correct the concerns of legal experts, human rights groups, UN experts and the international community, on the erosion of peaceful thought in Hong Kong.

Earlier evasion

The latest government statement contradicted what top officials and law enforcement had said previously when asked whether chanting such slogans would be deemed to be breaching the legislation. Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said at a press conference on Wednesday that it depended on the context, while police refused to make clear what slogans would be seen as illegal, citing operational considerations.

“The objective of enforcement action is not to target any flags or slogans, whilst to interdict people’s behaviour on inciting and/or abetting others for the commission of secession or subversion,” the force told HKFP in an email on Wednesday evening.

Pro-democracy legal scholar Benny Tai said the statement meant that people can no longer chant “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” He said the government could ban this slogan today, and prohibit other chants tomorrow.

“The reality is, under the Hong Kong national security law, every sentence said by every person at every moment could touch the red line and be said as violating the law. How could the national security law only targets a small group of people,” Tai said.

flag mong kok prince edward february 29
Photo: Studio Incendo.

Mixed messages

In an interview with NowTV published a few hours before the government statement, pro-Beijing figure Maria Tam said people would not be convicted simply based on one behaviour. The Basic Law Committee vice-chairwoman said it would depend on other factors, such as whether there was organisation, planning and implementation.

“Is there other actions apart from chanting [slogans] and waving a flag? If there is no other evidence, I personally think the person would not be charged with secession,” Tam said.

In addition to secession and subversion, the legislation also punishes terrorist acts and collusion with foreign forces. Regular cases will attract penalties of a minimum of three years behind bars and a maximum of 10 years. In “serious cases,” violators could face life imprisonment.

The near-ubiquitous rallying cry “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” was first coined by Hong Kong localist Edward Leung in 2019. The 29-year-old activist is currently serving a six-year jail sentence for rioting and assault of a police officer in connection with the Mong Kok unrest. He has since become a figurehead of the movement from behind bars.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.