Shuttered independent Hong Kong media outlet Stand News published op-eds about the pro-democracy camp’s 2020 unofficial primary election based on “public interest” and the importance of the issue, a court has heard, as the sedition trial against the platform’s former top editors continued.

Chung Pui-kuen
Former chief editor of Stand News Chung Pui-kuen appears at the District Court on February 13, 2023. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

The prosecution’s questioning of the former chief editor of Stand News Chung Pui-kuen continued in front of Judge Kwok Wai-kin at the District Court on Monday.

Chung, Stand News’ former acting chief editor Patrick Lam, and the outlet’s parent company have been accused of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials.

In recent hearings, lead prosecutor Laura Ng has been examining Chung’s perception of the case’s background, including the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest as well as other political events that followed.

On Monday morning, Ng asked Chung about several articles published by Stand News on the unofficial primaries held ahead of the 2020 legislature election, which was later postponed.

Forty-seven prominent activists have been charged under the national security law over their roles in the polls. Sixteen who pleaded not guilty are currently undergoing trial for an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion.

The prosecutor told Chung to read parts of two Stand News op-eds by an author named “the artist of mutual destruction,” and asked if Chung agreed with what the writer was advocating.

The author urged the public to start businesses and form new unions to contest legislature seats in functional constituencies. “If we get over 35 seats, we can veto the budget, cause mutual destruction and force the government to give in,” the op-ed read.

Patrick Lam
Acting chief editor Patrick Lam of now-defunct Stand News appears at the District Court on February 13, 2023. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

In response, Chung said he had never considered whether he agreed with the writer.

Chung said Stand News would evaluate “whether an issue is important, is of a public nature and is related to public interest” before publishing an op-ed, rather than thinking about what ideology was being put forward.

The prosecution also asked for Chung’s views on an article by former legal scholar Benny Tai, one of the organisers of the primaries, which was published by defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily on April 28, 2020.

In the piece, Tai argued that democrats’ participation in the Legislative Council election and the response from Hong Kong and central authorities would eventually steer the city towards “mutual destruction.”

Chung told the court that Stand News did not run the article or publish any reports related to Tai’s ideas. “From a journalistic standpoint, it was a mistake. The information we reported was not comprehensive enough,” he said.

The defendant said he had believed that people were mostly concerned about whether all the democrats intended to run in the election would participate in the primaries or respect the results.

Chung said he thought Tai’s 10 steps did not provide a new political proposal, but the professor’s prediction of Hong Kong’s future based on own observations.

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Benny Tai. Photo: Benny Tai via Twitter.

But he agreed that Tai had encouraged other democrats to coordinate to try and secure a controlling majority in the legislature. “Many times when Professor Tai spoke, it was about similar topics and was quite repetitive. At the time, I didn’t think it carried much news value.”

Even after the mass arrest of the democrats involved in the primaries in January 2021, Chung said he and many others – including pro-Beijing figures Ronny Tong and Michael Tien – were unsure why the plan to veto the government budget in accordance with the rights granted by the Basic Law would constitute an offence.

Primaries forum

The former chief editor was also questioned about the shuttered outlet’s role in the primary election forums. Stand News, D100 Radio, Singjai and Apple Daily hosted a series of six forums for candidates in the primaries to introduce their political ideas and debate against their competitors in the same district.

Chung was asked if Stand News supported the primaries or helped to push the democrats’ plan forward.

In response, Chung said his outlet placed high importance to the primaries. “If there’s anything that could help us release more information about the primaries, and we thought the Hongkongers should know about it, we would report on it as much as possible.”

The editor added that the outlet had been approached by an organiser of the primaries and Chung had decided to co-host the forum on Stand News social media pages.

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Pro-democracy activists who pledged to veto the budget if they were elected to become lawmakers in the 2020 Legislative Council election. File photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

While saying that he “personally” supported the primaries, Chung said Stand News’ role was to provide sufficient information for Hongkongers to make their own decisions.

“Did we push [the primaries] forward? We did help the message to reach more Hongkongers,” Chung said.

Ng said she would start questioning Chung tomorrow over three of the 17 articles that have been admitted as evidence of alleged “sedition” written by three democrats who participated in the primaries: Gwyneth Ho, Owen Chow and Fergus Leung.

Hongkongers’ sentiments towards China

During Monday’s hearing Ng also asked if Chung agreed that Hongkongers’ “hostility” towards mainland China had deepened over the course of the 2019 protests, citing protesters’ assaults against mainland Chinese and their calls for foreign sanctions on Chinese authorities.

While disagreeing with Ng’s choice of word, Chung said he had observed an increased dissatisfaction towards the central government.

“Because of their demands going unanswered, as well as statements by Beijing’s offices and the pro-establishment camp, people in Hong Kong were increasingly dissatisfied with the central authorities,” Chung said.

But the journalist said he did not agree with Ng’s suggestion that such sentiments had deepened since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The 2019 protest. File photo: May James/HKFP.

Instead, Chung said people had started to feel “disappointment, fear, and a mixture of distress and anger,” with some discussing emigration amid rumours that Beijing would enact a security law in the city.

Citing how deceased Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang was first remanded by the police for “rumour-mongering” when he tried to warn about the emergence of Covid-19, Chung said it reflected many Hongkongers’ worries under the One Country, Two Systems.

“The lack of freedom of speech and press freedom led to a large disaster. Everybody knew it was not the first time in China’s history,” Chung said. “After all, [Hongkongers] want to fight for… some sort of system that safeguards liberty, and that is different from China’s system,” Chung said.

The anti-sedition legislation, which was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, falls under the city’s Crimes Ordinance. It is separate from the Beijing-imposed national security law, and outlaws incitement to violence, disaffection and other offences against the authorities.

Non-profit online news outlet Stand News ceased operations in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by more than 200 national security police officers. Seven people connected to the publication were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious publications. Only Chung and Lam were charged.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.