Former law professor and pro-democracy activist Benny Tai has pleaded guilty to four charges of illegal election spending by placing advertisements in local newspapers in the run-up to the 2016 legislative polls.

The 57-year-old scholar submitted his guilty plea before District Court judge Anthony Kwok on Monday. Charges against his two co-defendants, Ip Kim-ching and Sek Sau-ching, were conditionally dropped.

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Benny Tai. File photo: HKFP.

They were accused of incurring over HK$253,000 in election expenses by placing three newspaper advertisements in Ming Pao, and three in the defunct Apple Daily newspaper in September 2016, even though they were not candidates or agents.

ThunderGo plan

The advertisements in question were linked to Tai’s tactical voting strategy known as ThunderGo, which aimed to coordinate votes to help pan-democratic candidates secure more than half of the seats in the legislature.

Charges against Ip and Sek were ultimately dropped following a deal with the prosecution. They both signed a binding-over order for a year. If they break the law during this period, they will need to pay HK$10,000 for each charge.

Upon leaving the dock, Ip held up his fist in a gesture of encouragement to Tai. Ip and Sek then moved to the public gallery for the remaining of the hearing.

In mitigation, Tai’s defence lawyer Randy Shek said that the ThunderGo project had been carried out in a very transparent manner, including announcing the initiative’s purpose publicly and explaining the use of money.

2016 legco legislative elections candidates leaflets advertising
Campaign fliers handed out during the 2016 Legislative Council election. Photo: HKFP.

Shek also said the ThunderGo plan did not impair the fairness of the election as it only mobilised voters who were already inclined to vote for the democrats to cast their ballots in a strategic way. The lawyer said behaviour such as vote-rigging was more damaging than Tai’s plan.

Case not ‘politically charged’

Judge Anthony Kwok said that neither he nor the prosecution were going after Tai’s advocacy for tactical voting, adding the case wasn’t a “politically charged” one, with the prosecution echoing “that’s never the case.”

Kwok, however, questioned why the prosecution only brought charges against Tai and others in July 2021, five years after the alleged offences occurred, suggesting a delay in prosecution was not ideal.

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Voters line up to cast their ballots in the 2016 Legislative Council elections. File Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

The prosecutor said the ThunderGo plan was a large-scale one and it took a long time to gather evidence, adding that the government conducted a public consultation on relaxing the election spending rules in 2017. The prosecution waited for the results from that report before considering a prosecutorial decision.

Tai will appear in court again on May 24 for sentencing.

Tai was the leader of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and was fired from HKU for alleged misconduct in July last year. He said at the time that the move marked “the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong,” while the China Liaison Office in the city hailed the decision as “poetic justice.”

He is also among 47 pro-democracy figures charged with conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020. He has been remanded in custody awaiting trial since last March.

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Almond Li is a Hong Kong-based journalist who previously worked for Reuters and Happs TV as a freelancer, and as a reporter at Hong Kong International Business Channel, Citizen News and Commercial Radio Hong Kong. She earned her Masters in Journalism at the University of Southern California. She has an interest in LGBT+, mental health and environmental issues.