Netizens have come up with creative alternative ways to express the protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” after the government called it secessionist and pro-independence.

The government released a statement on Thursday night claiming the emblematic protest slogan reflected calls for Hong Kong independence, subversion of state power and altering the semi-autonomous territory’s legal status.

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Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Pro-Beijing heavyweight Maria Tam told reporters on Friday that she had always found the slogan to be problematic.

“When you talk about liberation, in its Chinese meaning, in our historical events, it’s when you have one piece of land… That place belongs to me but somebody took it and now I am going to retrieve it,” she said. “That’s the meaning of liberation. So as far as we are concerned, Hong Kong belongs to China.”

Tam added that one could not judge whether a single slogan or gesture violated the four crimes – secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign powers – under the national security law.

Barrister Erik Shum told HKFP the government statement alone could not be considered legally binding. However, the government may use the statement as evidence in a future prosecution, with an assumption that the defendant has read it.

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Police warning flag. Photo: Internet.

“They may infer that any use of the slogan from July 2 onwards shows that [defendants] are using the slogan under the meaning interpreted by the government,” he said. “But it does not mean that the judge will directly adopt the interpretation in this statement.”

Shum also added that the statement does not specify what kind of acts involving the slogan risk violating the law, and under what circumstances.

“Different people may wish to express different meanings when using the slogan. For instance, ‘revolution’ contains multiple meanings. ‘Liberate’ has broad connotations as well,” he said.
“I can imagine different people, despite using the very same slogan, may attach different meanings to it. I don’t agree that this slogan only contains a single meaning.”

Police on Wednesday made ten arrests on suspicion of violating the national security law at an unauthorised protest which coincided with the 1997 handover anniversary. Several of those arrested were found with flags and stickers containing protest slogans including “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.”

Human rights lawyer Mark Daly told HKFP the government statement would confirm the concerns of legal experts, human rights groups, UN experts and the international community, regarding the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.

Netizens’ reactions

On Reddit-like LIHKG online forum, netizens said the government statement on protest slogans was absurd and would stifle free speech.

  • “How hard it is to create a new slogan?” – LIHKG user Drown All the Fish.
  • “Someone set the boundary and people are afraid of crossing it… As they are holding weapons they ask you to go unarmed and pretend to be rational. They will slowly prosecute us one by one.” – LIHKG user Lower Albert Road.
  • “Arrest Nancy Pelosi” – LIHKG user Brothel Pimp. The statement referenced a picture of the US House speaker Pelosi with an activist holding a t-shirt with the slogan on it.

Pro-democracy activist Wong Ji-Yuet changed her Facebook page cover photo into eight underscores and one comma in the middle – under the caption “The political regime can control people’s speech and act but they cannot control people’s thoughts.”

Netizens also designed various posters hinting to the sensitive slogan. One poster showed the geometric typeface of the eight Chinese characters but merged some strokes together into larger blocks.

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Geometric typeface of “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.” Photo: Internet.

Another way to evoke the slogan without spelling it out is to put the initials of the romanisation of the eight Chinese characters – “GFHG, SDGM.”

A pro-protester “yellow ribbon” restaurant – “No Boundary” – also built a Lennon Wall message board containing empty memos.

“What’s written on the Lennon Wall is not important. Hongkongers do not need to look closely to understand what we are trying to express,” they wrote on Facebook. “What is essential is invisible to the eye, according to The Little Prince.”

An Instagram account, dreamourhk_, urged protesters to post white papers on every corner in Hong Kong as a form of protest: “Use white paper to resist white terror,” they wrote.

Last year, ahead of the local district councils elections, some pro-democracy activists who had posted the slogan to their social media pages were asked by electoral officers to explain their intended meanings. No candidates were disqualified due to the slogan.

According to Oriental Daily, Beijing loyalist Tam Yiu-chung said anyone who violates the national security law may be stripped of the right to stand in elections for a lifetime.

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.