In January, the former editor-in-chief of shuttered independent outlet Stand News delivered his testimony as the sedition trial against him, another ex-editor and the platform’s parent company continued.

Stand News 20230109
Stand News’ former chief editors Chung Pui-kuen (left) and Patrick Lam (right) on January 9, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Meanwhile, six people were arrested by national security police over an allegedly “seditious” book in the largest national security arrests in months, the high-profile trial involving pro-democracy figures charged with conspiring to commit subversion under the national security law was delayed until February, and legal professionals weighed in on Beijing’s interpretation of the security legislation.

Stand News trial

The trial against two ex-top editors of defunct news outlet Stand News continued this month, with Chung Pui-kuen, the former editor-in-chief, taking the stand.

The court heard that Chung had planned to step down following the closure of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, and that Stand News was committed to protecting freedom of speech.

Chung Pui-kuen, former chief editor of Stand News, at the District Court on January 26, 2023.
Chung Pui-kuen, former chief editor of Stand News, at the District Court on January 26, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Allegedly “seditious” articles and opinion pieces were also examined in court, with Chung testifying that the outlet accidentally published an op-ed comparing Hong Kong’s 2019 protests with the Irish War of Independence.

47 democrats

Two years after their arrests, the High Court ruled that those who pleaded guilty among the 47 democrats charged under the national security law will be sentenced after the trial against their co-defendants.

Meanwhile, one of those who was set to stand trial indicated that he would like to change his plea to guilty, meaning that a total of 16 defendants will appear before the panel of three national security judges when hearings begin on February 6, a week later than scheduled.

Jimmy Lai

While the national security trial against Jimmy Lai, the founder of defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, has been adjourned to September, the listing of the newspapers parent company Next Digital was cancelled by Hong Kong’s stock exchange this month.

Additionally, the debate around Beijing’s ruling on whether whether overseas counsels not qualified to practise in Hong Kong could take part in national security cases continued in January.

Hong Kong Bar Association Victor Dawes
The Chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association Victor Dawes speaks at the Ceremonial Opening of Legal Year 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Following the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPCSC) legislative interpretation on the security legislation, the Committee for Safeguarding National Security held its first meeting, and urged the government to amend the Legal Practitioners Ordinance “as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Hong Kong Bar Association, Victor Dawes, said the city should not implement a complete ban on overseas barristers participating in national security law cases, and that authorities should exercise the power confirmed by the NPCSC with caution.

Lai’s case has also sparked diplomatic spats further afield. An international legal team claiming to represent Lai, which Lai’s Hong Kong lawyers later denied, met with a UK minister over the media tycoon’s case, causing the Hong Kong government to express its opposition.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also vowed to stand up to “Chinese aggression” and defend Hong Kong’s freedoms. Separately, the Hong Kong administration said it “vehemently refutes” a six-monthly report on the city published by the UK government, which said that Beijing had failed to comply with the Handover agreement.

Gregory May speaking at a forum held by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on January 25, 2023.
Gregory May speaking at a forum held by the Center for Strategic & International Studies on January 25, 2023. Photo: CSIS, via video screenshot.

Also weighing in on the national security law interpretation, US consul general to Hong Kong and Macau Gregory May said it “could further undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary system.” May’s comments led to the criticism from both Hong Kong and the Commissioner’s Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong.

New arrests

January saw more arrests under the colonial-era sedition law. A 24-year-old man was arrested soon after the new year over social media posts, including some which called for the city’s independence.

The city also saw the largest arrests by national security police in recent months, with six people apprehended over the production, publishing and sale of a “seditious” book on the 2019 protests and unrest.

Press freedom

In the first month of 2023, defunct independent Hong Kong outlet Citizen News marked the one-year anniversary of its closure by removing all of the content from its website and social media platforms.

Meanwhile, Ming Pao was again criticised by the administration. Chief Secretary for Administration Eric Chan said that a comic strip published by the newspaper about the NPCSC interpretation made “biased, misleading, and false accusations” about the “constitutional responsibility of the chief executive to safeguard national security.”

Eric Chan
Chief Secretary for Administration Eric Chan. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Meanwhile, Chief Executive John Lee said in January that there were people using journalism as a cover to pursue political aims, personal benefit, or “launder money” in the city, although he provided no proof to justify his claims.

Complaints, resignations and a new appointment

According to the annual judiciary report released this month, not one of more than 8,600 complaints made against judges or judicial officers last year was deemed to be justified or partly justified. The report also showed that defendants on average had to wait almost a year for their cases to be heard in district court.

It was revealed in January that over 900 civil servants resigned in a three-month period last year, with a union head attributing the exodus of school teachers to greater pressures following the implementation of the national security law.

Hong Kong also saw the appointment of Zheng Yanxiong as the new head of the central government’s Liaison Office in the city. On his first day of office, Zheng – who previously led Hong Kong’s national security agency – said that the city would have a bright future if it stayed on the right course.

Departures, temporary and permanent

Also in January, 91-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was arrested last May under the Beijing-imposed national security law, was allowed to leave the city to attend the funeral of former pope Benedict XVI.

cyd ho joseph zen margaret ng denise ho hui po-keung 612 humanitarian relief fund
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former trustee of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, spoke to the press at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

HKFP spoke to a Hong Kong professor who had left the city after hearing that his university allegedly contacted the police over an article he had written about the 2019 protests.

Meanwhile, sports groups under the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong were told to include “China” in their official names or risk having their funding withdrawn.

Arrest and prosecution tally

As of January 20, 243 people had been arrested over suspected acts and activities that endangered national security since the legislation was enacted, according to data provided by the Security Bureau. Among those, 149 people and five companies had been charged.

According to the Bureau, 60 people have been convicted or are awaiting sentencing; among them 25 have been convicted or awaiting sentencing under the Beijing-imposed security law. It did not specify the offences committed by the remaining 35 defendants.

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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.