A Hong Kong man has been sentenced to eight months in prison after he was convicted of five counts of sedition. The judgement marked the first jail sentence handed down for the crime since the leftist riots in 1967, when pro-communist activists and newsmen were jailed over publications that challenged the authority of the British colonial government of the time.

West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. File Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Acting Chief Magistrate of the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts and designated national security judge Peter Law handed down the sentence on Monday morning to 41-year-old defendant Kim Chiang Chung-sang, a property manager. Last Wednesday, the man pleaded guilty to five out of eight counts of displaying and possessing physical and digital seditious publication.

The remaining three charges were withdrawn by prosecutors following the sentencing, Oriental Daily reported.

Digital & physical posters

Prosecutors accused Chiang of displaying seditious publications in June last year by putting up a poster near a kindergarten in Tin Shui Wai three times, and in the High Court building once. He was also found to be in possession of 48 seditious posters in digital format.

Some copies of the posters contained calls for protesters to gather in Causeway Bay last June 12. Other copies posted in a men’s bathroom in the High Court criticised judges presiding over Tong Ying-kit’s national security case with the words “corrupt Hong Kong communist officials buried their conscience, their families must die,” InMedia reported. The 48 digital files, meanwhile, contained words such as “police are Hong Kong’s largest criminal organisation” or describing chief executive Carrie Lam as “a wicked woman.”

Carrie Lam. File photo: GovHK.

According to the charges, Chiang intended to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the government as well as the administration of justice in Hong Kong,” as well as to “raise discontent or disaffection” among Hong Kong residents, to incite violence and to “counsel disobedience to law or any lawful order.”

When handing down the sentence, Chief Magistrate Law said Chiang committed the crime two years after the massive anti-extradition bill protests in 2019, which had since died down. The timing “without a doubt meant he hoped to reignite what had already calmed down,” Law said.

That Chiang chose to display the posters near a kindergarten would also “poison [the children’s] hearts without their knowing,” owing to their young age and lack of critical thinking, the magistrate said. Another poster that included photos of judges in the Tong case posted in a bathroom at the High Court, meanwhile, was a “challenge to the rule of law” and would fan the emotions of those in the public gallery who were already agitated.

A revived colonial law

Since September 2020, a total of 20 individuals and four news media companies have been charged under the colonial-era sedition law, including pro-democracy media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News. The legislation had otherwise been left dormant since 1967.

1967 riots outside the Government House. Photo: Citizen News.

Arrested by the city’s national security police, only one of the defendants was able to secure bail as they await trial.

The colonial-era law inscribed under sections 9, 10 and 11 of the Crimes Ordinance was first promulgated in 1938. Until 2020, it was used the British colonial government primarily in 1967 to suppress leftist riots at the time. Pro-communist activists and newsmen were fined and jailed under the law, including former Home Affairs Secretary Tsang Tak-sing, who served two years in jail for dropping “seditious” flyers from a school building on Bonham Road.

A 1967 news article reporting that three newspapers were ordered to shut operations over “fake news” and “publication of seditious words.” Photo: Oldhkphoto.com via Facebook.

At least four pro-communist newspapers were ordered to stop or suspend operations after they were accused of publishing seditious words in 1967. For 12 days in 1952, the Beijing-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao was also ordered to suspend operations under the law.

In a January white paper, Beijing itself criticised the colonial authorities for using legal means to ban and fine the newspapers: “The British colonial government maintained a repressive rule in Hong Kong, tightly controlling the press and restricting freedom of speech.”

The 1967 riots refers to large-scale unrest between leftists and the British establishment in Hong Kong. What began as a minor labour dispute escalated into several months of protests, violence and murders with 1,167 bombs planted across the city. At least 802 people were injured during the unrest, and 51 died – including ten police officers.

Hong Kong sedition law. Photo: HKU.

In a 1994 South China Morning Post column entitled “dump this colonial baggage,” democrat Martin Lee urged then-colonial governor Chris Patten to axe controversial legislation as there was a risk that the post-colonial authorities may use it against the media: “These laws, among others, contain breath-taking broad powers to crush freedom of expression and authorise censorship of all media,” he wrote.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.