A Hong Kong judge banned a man from attending the trial of a pro-democracy activist facing sedition charges on Tuesday, as the court continued to debate the meaning of a popular protest slogan.

On the fifth day of the trial of Vice Chairperson of People Power “Fast Beat” Tam Tak-chi at the District Court, the prosecution cross-questioned the defence’s expert witness, University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) linguistics professor Janny Leung, on the meaning of “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.

District Court. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The activist and DJ faces 14 charges, including “uttering seditious words,” disorderly conduct in a public place, conspiracy to utter seditious words, holding or convening an unauthorised assembly, incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly, and refusing to obey an order from an authorised officer.

First used by localist activist Edward Leung in 2016, the “liberate Hong Kong” slogan was later popularised during the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests. It was deemed illegal by the government last year.

On Monday, citing a report she compiled using Google tools and databases, the linguistics scholar said the slogan could have very broad meanings and that the word “revolution” did not necessarily mean “to overturn a ruling regime.” Furthermore, she said the word “liberate” could mean to improve a problem, not only “to take back lost territories”.

But on Tuesday, the prosecution – led by Acting Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Chau – questioned the reliability of Janny Leung’s report. Both Judge Stanley Chan and the prosecution also cast doubt over the representativeness of the Google tools and databases.

Leung said the online database she used – Google Ngram – scans over five million books around the world, which amounts to 4 per cent of all books in existence. She added that the digital database is the largest of its kind in the world. However, the judge asked, “Where are the remaining 96 per cent?”

Dictionary definitions

During the trial, Chau and Leung also debated the appropriateness of focusing just on definitions from dictionaries and historical texts.

While Leung did record dictionary definitions of “liberate” and “revolution” from eight dictionaries found in Hong Kong in her report, she disagreed with the prosecution that one should only look at meanings in reference books.

Tam Tak-chi. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

Referencing historical texts including the Records of the Three Kingdoms written in the third century, the prosecution’s expert witness, historian Lau Chi-pang of Lingnan University, said on Monday that the slogan carries meanings including overturning the government and taking back Hong Kong from the enemy, as well as not recognising the current ruling regime in the city. Lau also testified in the city’s first national security law trial.

However, the HKU scholar said such meanings, while included in dictionaries, are in fact examples of how the words could be used, rather than definitions. She added that while some people might share Lau’s interpretations of the slogan, others might not, as its meanings are broad.

She also gave the example of US politician Bernie Sanders’ campaign slogan “our revolution”, saying how “no one would question whether he was trying to overthrow the US government”.

A protest flag that features the portrait of former localist leader Edward Leung and the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

Chau then questioned whether political slogans such as “our revolution” and “make America great again” were too vague. Leung replied that political slogans are deliberately vague, and this applies to “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” too.

Language in use

To demonstrate the broad meanings associated with the slogan, Leung also cited news reports from RTHK and Voice of America where interviewees were asked about how they interpreted “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” For example, the HKU scholar pointed out how some interviewees of the American broadcaster viewed the slogan as more radical while others saw it as a desire to return to what Hong Kong was like in the past.

Photo: Isaac Yee/HKFP.

Chau questioned the validity of some of the examples, given that some interviewees cited in the Voice of America article did not give their full name.

‘Unreliable’ report

The prosecutor also cast doubt on the validity of Leung’s report as it did not include a police report and did not mention that the slogan was used during illegal acts.

The police report Chau was referring to was compiled by Senior Inspector Eddie Cheung who said he viewed over 2,000 videos of the protests in 2019 and 2020. It detailed the number of times “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” appeared, as well as the occurrence of violent incidents, the chanting of pro-independence slogans and other subversive events.

When asked why she did not include Cheung’s report in her research, Leung said that she had not received the report from the legal team.

But she said that, while the slogan was used during illegal acts, there were times when it was chanted without violent incidents happening, adding it did not equate to violence.

Stanley Chan. Photo: Judiciary.

When Chau asked Leung whether she agreed it was a “serious omission,” people sitting in the public gallery shouted “disagree”.

Leung replied that she partially agreed, adding that – while she had viewed footage of the protest during her research – she “did not inspect all the clips one by one in detail”.

Chau then said Leung’s report was “unreliable” and “incomplete,” both of which Leung objected to.

Man banned from court

During the trial, Judge Chan also criticised Leung for referring to HK01 as a newspaper in a part of her report discussing the usage of “liberate Tung Chung”.

When Chan said that it “is not a newspaper, it is an online media,” several people in the public gallery coughed loudly. The judge then asked who coughed.

After a man stood up and said it was him, Chan questioned why he could not supress the cough. The man replied saying that “medical reports showed that coughs could not be suppressed.”

The judge then asked whether the man had a medical report and the man answered that he was speaking about the condition generally and left the courtroom.

Chan then told the remaining people sitting in the public gallery that judges have the right to maintain order in the courtroom, and that people would be banned from entering the courtroom if they refuse to comply.

“Since he was not feeling well and could not supress his cough, I now order that he cannot enter the courtroom again until I cancel the order,” said Chan.

The court session adjourned after the prosecution and defence agreed upon dates to submit further legal arguments and closing statements. Tam will appear in court again on December 14, 2021.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.