In November, Hong Kong invited Beijing to interpret the national security law after the city’s top court rejected a government attempt to bar an overseas barrister from appearing in a high-profile case. Hong Kong authorities locked horns with international sports bodies after rugby competition organisers confused a 2019 protest song with the Chinese national anthem.

National security law
Photo: GovHK.

Security law interpretation

Hong Kong’s government has asked China’s legislature to interpret the national security law which Beijing imposed in June 2020 after the city’s top court rejected attempts to bar a British barrister from a high-profile security case involving media mogul Jimmy Lai.

Jimmy Lai Apple Daily
Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The controversy began when Lai, who is accused of collusion and sedition, wanted to hire a non-locally registered British barrister to defend him in the trial set to start on December 1. King’s Counsel Timothy Owen was granted an ad-hoc admission by a Hong Kong court in October, but that decision was challenged by the city’s Department of Justice all the way up to the top court.

Timothy Owen
King’s Counsel Timothy Owen leaving the Court of Final Appeal in Central on November 25, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The Court of Final Appeal dismissed the DoJ’s appeal bid in late November, allowing Owen to represent Lai. Within hours, Chief Executive John Lee said he would invite Beijing to make an interpretation on whether overseas lawyers can take part in Hong Kong’s national security cases. The government submitted its request the same night.

john lee
Chief Executive John Lee met the press on November 29, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The Secretary for Justice applied for an adjournment of Lai’s case – the trial was then delayed to December 13

Pro-Beijing figures and state media in Hong Kong strongly criticised the court decision to allow Owen’s appearance, even citing a pro-China figure as saying the trial should be shifted to the mainland if necessary.

According to Article 65 of the national security law and Article 158 of the Basic Law, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has the power to interpret Hong Kong’s laws and it has done so five times since the Handover. The most recent case, in 2016, effectively banned six pro-democracy lawmakers-elect from the Legislative Council.

National anthem blunders

Hong Kong’s rugby stars were caught in the crosshairs after a series of national anthem blunders at international competitions. “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song dubbed the “anthem” of the city’s 2019 protests, was played at a Rugby Sevens game in South Korea rather than “March of the Volunteers” – the national anthem the city shares with China.

Hong Kong rugby players remained stonefaced as a protest anthem was played instead of the national anthem in Korea. Photo: Rugby7s screenshot via YouTube.

More blunders later emerged, in which the correct anthem was played but was mislabelled as “Glory to Hong Kong.”

The Hong Kong government demanded answers from the organisers and sporting bodies, including Asia Rugby, over the incidents, calling for a full investigation after competition officials admitted “human errors.” Leader John Lee said Hong Kong police would launch their own probe to see if the incidents violated the city’s national anthem law or national security law.

Hong Kong rugby Glory to Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s national anthem was labelled as “Glory to Hong Kong” in a match between the city’s team and Portugal held on November 6, 2022. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Some pro-Beijing politicians also slammed the players for their “lack of response” when the wrong tune was played. The Sports Federation & Olympic Committee of Hong Kong then announced planned new guidelines for athletes in such situations. Players would be told to make a “time out” signal to the match organisers.

The government also asked a search engine, reportedly Google, to pin “March of the Volunteers” at the top of search results for “Hong Kong national anthem.”

Google search result 2022-11-25
Google search shows Hong Kong rock band Beyond’s “Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies” as top result when HKFP search for “Hong Kong national anthem” in incognito mode. Photo: Screenshot, via Google.

A man was arrested and denied bail for sharing a clip of the wrong song being played at the Sevens game, allegedly with a message of thanks to South Korea, for “acknowledging Hong Kong’s national anthem.”

Minimum sentence for ‘serious’ offences

A Hong Kong court made a landmark ruling, stipulating that a minimum sentence should apply for people convicted of national security offences that are of “serious” nature.

The Court of Appeal dismissed a legal challenge by university student Lui Sai-yu, who was jailed for five years for inciting secession by selling weapons on Telegram and posting messages which advocated Hong Kong independence.

High Court
High Court. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Lui had pleaded guilty and was originally sentenced to three years and eight months, after a District Court judge gave him a one-third jail term discount – a frequent practice in the common law system, encouraging defendants to plead guilty early on and save time. But the same judge raised Lui’s sentence to five years following representations by the prosecution, citing the national security law’s minimum sentence of that duration for “serious” offences.

national security law banner
Photo: GovHK.

The Court of Appeal ruling could have a far-reaching impact – with at least one activist among the 47 democrats involved in a subversion case saying her mitigation plea may make reference to legal arguments in Lui’s case.

Lawyers in other national security cases also said a minimum sentence would give future defendants no incentive to plead guilty, if they could not expect the same jail term discount as regular offenders.

612 Humanitarian Relief Fund

Six pro-democracy figures, including Hong Kong’s 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, were convicted and fined up to HK$4,000 for failing to register a now-disbanded protester relief fund as a society.

cyd ho joseph zen margaret ng denise ho hui po-keung 612 humanitarian relief fund
(From left) Cyd Ho, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Margaret Ng, Denise Ho and Hui Po-keung, the former trustees of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Zen, barrister Margaret Ng, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and singer-activist Denise Ho were the former trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided financial and medical support to protesters involved in the 2019 protests and unrest. The sixth person was Sze Ching-wee, secretary for the fund.

All six were previously arrested on suspicion of conspiring to collude with foreign powers, an offence under the security law. They were released on bail and no charges have been laid so far.

Stand News sedition trial

The trial against the now-defunct Stand News was halted around a week after it began. The media outlet and two of its former editors, Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam, are accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publications,” under a colonial-era law.

patrick lam
Ex-chief editor of Stand News Patrick Lam is released on bail on November 7, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The trial started in late October and was scheduled to last 20 days. But on the fifth day the defence requested a permanent stay of proceedings, citing improper handling of prosecution evidence after more than 1,500 pages worth of evidence were not disclosed to the defence before trial.

The lawyer for Chung and Lam argued that the failure may cause a delay in the trial process and result in the defendants being detained for longer than their possible maximum sentence. If approved, the application for a permanent stay would terminate the trial and see the defendants released immediately.

Lam, who was the acting chief editor, was then granted bail while Chung did not apply for bail.

Total arrests

As of November 25, a total of 235 people had been arrested for national security-related offences since the law came into force on June 30, 2020, according to figures from the Security Bureau. So far, 144 individuals and five companies have been charged, and 58 people convicted.

The figures cover both people arrested under the national security law and those held under another law covering sedition. The Security Bureau did not provide separate figures for sedition offences, despite having done so previously.

Correction 6/12: Article 158 of the Basic Law empowers Beijing to interpret the city’s laws, as opposed to Article 156, as stated in an early version of this article. We regret the error.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.