A martial arts trainer in Hong Kong has pleaded guilty to inciting subversion under the national security law and one count of possession of arms without license. His assistant was granted bail pending sentencing after pleading guilty to an arms possession charge.

Denis Wong and Iry Cheung entered their guilty pleas before District Judge Ernest Lin on Friday, after spending close to 11 months in custody since their arrests last March.

District Court
District Court. Photo: GovHK.

Wong, who was a martial arts coach, pleaded guilty to inciting others to organise, plan, commit or participate in overthrowing or undermining the basic system of the People’s Republic of China and overthrowing the body power of Hong Kong and China between July 1, 2020 and March 20, 2022.

Wong originally faced a sedition charge under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance, which warrants a maximum penalty of two years of imprisonment if convicted. His charge was upgraded to incitement to subversion last September, an offence under the sweeping national security legislation that is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. However, the jail sentences meted out at the District Court are capped at seven years.

‘Independent Hong Kong state’

According to the prosecution, the martial arts trainer, who was 59 when he was arrested last March, had two Facebook accounts under the names “Denis Wong” and “Tommy Wong.” He was said to have made 25 subversive posts on the former account, while the latter shared 14 subversive messages, all accessible to the general public.

The posts incited others to join Wong’s martial arts class and learn how to use weapons, prosecutor Vincent Lee told the court. The Facebook accounts also incited others to establish a shadow government and an “independent Hong Kong state,” with a picture of a black flag featuring the word: “Independent.”

National security law
A banner inside the Hong Kong government headquarters promoting the national security law. Photo: GovHK.

“[The accounts] incited others… upon sufficient training, to overthrow the Communist Party of China by violent revolution,” the prosecutor said.

Wong and Cheung were apprehended following a raid, after police sent a decoy to attend one of their martial arts classes. Officers found eight photos and posters that were said to have been used for “supporting anti-government protesters,” including Alex Chow Tsz-lok who died from head injuries following a fall near a protest site in 2019.

Hand-written notes were found in Wong’s bags, with some addressed to people named “Tony” and “Johnny.” They mentioned setting up a party to promote Hong Kong independence with force and establishing a “Hong Kong Independent State” and troop. Lee said Wong had provided martial arts training on the surface, but in fact hoped to recruit students to receive military training, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the government.

The combat coach also penned a letter to overseas pro-democracy activist and businessman Elmer Yuen, which was uncovered on his mobile phone. The device also contained information on how to make weapons with pens, a headscarf, a fishing hammer, a newspaper, nails and other items, the prosecutor said.

Police seized two crossbows, three machetes, one axe, three swords, 21 arrows and 40 short arrows from Wong’s home in Sha Tin. Separately, the Force uncovered five crossbows, three machetes, one axe, 41 arrows, 80 short arrows and some arrow heads at Cheung’s home in Ma On Shan.

All crossbows seized were considered arms, as each had a draw weight of more than six kilograms, Lee said citing forensic examinations.

LIN Kam-hung, Ernest Michael 練錦鴻.JPG
District Judge Ernest Lin. File photo: Judiciary.

Both defendants admitted to possessing arms without a license, while the prosecution did not proceed with their remaining charges relating to possession of offensive weapons. The arms seized were displayed in court on Friday, and judge Lin inspected the items in chambers without the presence of court attendees and journalists.

Bail granted

Lin adjourned the case to February 24 for mitigation and sentencing, as the court awaited a psychiatric report and a psychology report for Wong, as well as a background report for Cheung.

The case involved “very serious offences” and represented “uncharted waters” for the court, the judge said. He added that he needed to have a “thorough understanding” of the defendants’ background, particularly the mental state of the martial arts coach.

Cheung, who was not prosecuted under the national security law, made her first bail application on Friday since her bid was rejected by a magistrate last year. Lin approved the application, saying the 62-year-old had been in custody for a long time and that she may end up serving more time than her final sentence.

Cheung was ordered to pay a cash bail and surety of HK$50,000 each and she was barred from leaving Hong Kong. Her other bail conditions including also reporting to the police and observing a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.