The government has immortalised the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times” by banning it, its co-author has told HKFP.

The phrase was jointly created by ex-localist leader Edward Leung, ousted lawmaker Baggio Leung and a former member of the party Youngspiration who asked to be known as “J.”

Edward Leung
Edward Leung. File photo: Edward Leung, via Facebook.

J – who was granted anonymity owing to legal concerns – said the ban was one of the government’s worst mistakes in handling the political unrest, which began last June over an ill-fated extradition agreement with China.

Coined in 2016

J recalled a discussion between the trio at an election campaign meeting, when Edward Leung was a candidate in the 2016 legislative by-election.

“The original English translation for ‘Gwong Fuk’ [光復, the first two characters of the slogan] was ‘reclaim’ instead of ‘liberate.’ We were referring to previous ‘reclaim’ demonstrations targeting parallel traders at the border.”

He said the group first thought of “Reclaiming New Territories East (NTE) ,” as an election slogan for the constituency.

“But NTE was just an election constituency that otherwise had no meaning to Hongkongers. Why not think big and say ‘Reclaim Hong Kong (光復香港)?’ – to restore the lost glamour of Hong Kong, in its Chinese wording.”

The latter part was originally 世代革新 (Sai Doi Gaak San) which translates to “revolutionise the generations,” but was later amended to 世代革命 (Sai Doi Gaak Ming) – revolution of our generation.

protesters clash police Chinese University of Hong Kong CUHK
Protesters take cover during clashes with police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. Photo: Citizen News.

“2016 marked the time when a group of localist youth attempted to change the political landscape by challenging traditional pan-democrats and pro-establishment camps in elections. With the youth leading the change, it became the revolution of our generation.”

A few days later, Edward Leung told his campaign team he did not want the slogan to create generational conflict or exclude older generations who shared common values.

He recalled the leader saying: “The revolution is the calling of our times – both young and old. What matters most is a bottom-up radical change, not a divide between people of different age groups.”

Leung lost the by-election, winning 66,524 votes or 15 per cent of the total turnout. In 2018, he was convicted of rioting in connection with the 2016 Mong Kok unrest. He is currently serving a six-year jail term.

“Localism was definitely not mainstream in 2016,” J said. “Little did I know the slogan would gain popularity during last year’s protests.”

‘Owning’ the slogan

Most generally accept the slogan first gained popularity during the anti-extradition law movement last July 21 in Sheung Wan.

“The ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ flag was first waved in Sha Tin’s New Town Plaza on July 14. On July 21 in Sheung Wan, as far as I know, a number of Edward Leung’s supporters were at the scene,” he said. “They began chanting and the crowd responded fervently.”

“From that moment onwards, the movement claimed the slogan. It was not monopolised by localists nor any political group.”

liaison office july 21 china extradition
July 21, 2019 in Sheung Wan. Photo: May James/HKFP.

J recalled an “unforgettable” moment from a march in Yuen Long last year on July 27, following a triad-related mob attack at the MTR station six days prior.

A sponge grenade – a police projectile – penetrated a protester’s wooden shield. Asked by an Apple Daily reporter why he chose to remain on the frontline, he calmly replied: “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.”

The ban is a ‘mistake’

“The government made two mistakes by banning the slogan,” J said as he cited a quote from the dystopian movie V for Vendetta: “Ideas are bulletproof.”

Taiwan election January 10 Democratic Progressive Party DPP Tsai Ing-wen
A pro-Hong Kong protester flag reading ‘Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time’ flies above a Democratic Progressive Party rally on election day, January 10, in Taipei. Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

“They have chosen an enemy they cannot win against. There are protesters motivated by this slogan who are willing to take a bullet in the frontline.”

J said the second mistake was the government’s interpretation of the slogan as pro-independence, which essentially alienated one to two million people: “It shows that the government has not even attempted to bring people onto its side or mend its relationship with the people. Rather, they provide more fuel for the opposition.”

Pro-Beijing heavyweight Maria Tam told reporters on Friday that “Liberate” in Chinese implied separatism which is against the Basic Law: “Historically, ‘liberate’ means that a piece of land belongs to me but someone took it unlawfully or by force or by whatever means, but since it belongs to me, I’m coming back to retrieve it.”

But, following the government statement this week, netizens came up with various ways to allude to now-sensitive phrases. J said he thought protesters’ resilience and creativity proved that the slogan was irreplaceable and could not be erased.

“They can ban the slogan, make arrests for this reason and ban other songs and chants in near future… But what they represent – Hongkongers as a community with common destiny – is deeply rooted in people’s hearts.”

National security police purple warning flag
Police warning flag. Photo: Internet.

“Before uttering anything, we already know which eight characters you are referring to. It has been internalised. The government can’t wipe out its people’s memory.”

“Of course there are concerns over the security law’s chilling effect and self-censorship… but so long as they remain determined, I don’t think it would be a problem.”

‘Liberate Hong Kong’ overseas

Some overseas activists and politicians have chanted or worn T-shirts containing the slogan as a show of support for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. J said he appreciated the efforts of international lobbyists for exporting the slogan to other countries, including at a US Congressional hearing: “It has been recorded in official documents.”

“What we are fighting for is aligned with universal values,” he said. “We are fighting for democracy, freedom and the rights to decide our political future – which resonates with many freedom-loving people around the world.”

“These eight characters carry a historical weight to them because last year’s protests were unique,” he said. “The government has immortalised it by banning it.”

august 4 china extradition protest causeway bay
The slogan reads, “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time.” Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

He concluded his remarks by citing a Facebook post from freelance writer Richard Scotford on the slogan ban: “In 50 years time, no one will remember even one sentence from the garbage that is [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping thought, but [Edward Leung’s] phrase will be burned into the historical narrative of Hong Kong,” it read.

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.