A Hong Kong martial arts coach has been sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to inciting subversion under the Beijing-imposed national security law and one count of possession of arms without a license.

Meanwhile, the judge overseeing the case accidentally cut himself while handling a machete that had been admitted as evidence.

district court
Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

Denis Wong and Iry Cheung appeared at the District Count in front of handpicked national security Judge Ernest Lin on Friday.

Wong has been remanded for close to a year since his arrest in March last year.

Cheung, who faced one count of possession of arms without a license, was granted bail earlier this month after pleading guilty.

Barrister Steven Kwan, who represented Wong, said on Friday that he hoped the court would rule that his client’s offence was not of a serious nature. Wong was charged with an incitement charge, meaning that the actual offence of subversion was not committed, Kwan argued.

However, the judge ruled that the martial arts coach’s national security offence was of a serious nature and warranted a prison term of not less than five years, in accordance with the legislation.

The martial arts coach initially faced a sedition charge under the colonial-era sedition law, in which the maximum penalty for was two years in prison. However, his charge was upgraded to incitement to subversion under the security legislation last September.

While the offence is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, the maximum jail term that can be handed down at the District Court is seven years.

national security law banner
A national security billboard. Photo: GovHK.

Wong, who was 59 at the time of his arrest, made subversive posts and shared subversive messages on his two Facebook accounts, the prosecution said.

The posts incited others to take part in Wong’s martial arts classes and learn how to use weapons. The Facebook accounts also incited others to establish a shadow government and an “independent Hong Kong state,” prosecutor Vincent Lee said in an earlier court hearing.

The judge ruled that Wong’s posts were “designed to rekindle the feelings of discontent and disgust against the Police Force, the Hong Kong SAR and the Chinese Government.”

The use of the social media platform for incitement was also “an aggravating factor,” Lin wrote in the judgement.

“As the Facebook accounts were open to public, and the incitements and subversive messages could also be accessed by ‘friends’ who can share the same posts with others and repost them by making screen shots of the same,” the ruling read.

Wong’s use of two different Facebook accounts also showed that “it was not an impulsive, uncalculated idle act,” Lin wrote.

“It was a deliberate move on his part to double his audience, to solicit, enlist and persuade others to join in his act of defiance against the SAR and the Chinese government,” the judge wrote.

“It also has the effect of creating to the impression that those of the like mind were greater in number than they actually are.”

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

Lin also ruled that while there was no evidence that Wong’s incitement had “any actual impact on society… the danger of his blind rage, the suggestion of an apparently workable plan, and the attraction of his simple logic are real and cannot be ignored.”

“At that point of time Hong Kong was still shell shocked from the social events that took place in the latter half of 2019. It would not be wrong to say that a section of the population was still irrational and gullible,” Lin wrote.

“The subverting posts added fuel to the long days of discontent.”

Arms possession

The police also seized two crossbows, three machetes, one axe, three swords, 21 arrows and 40 short arrows from Wong’s home in Sha Tin. Law enforcement also found five crossbows, three machetes, one axe, 41 arrows, 80 short arrows and some arrow heads at Cheung’s home in Ma On Shan.

Senior counsel John Reading, representing Cheung, said on Friday that some of the items seized were used by his client for camping, a claim that the judge questioned.

Holding up a machete after taking it out of a box, Lin asked: “are you saying these are for camping? And the tomahawk is also for camping?”

The senior counsel responded “yes.”

“For the record, the machete is quite sharp, I cut myself when taking it out,” said Lin, after putting the knife back into a box.

Weapons confiscated by the police during the searches in Tsim Sha Tsui, Sha Tin, and Ma On Shan. Photo: Hong Kong Police, via video screenshot.

On Wong’s arms possession charge, Lin ruled that the martial arts coach’s claim of ignorance of the law was not a valid defence.

The judge ruled that the arms and weapons “were acquired not for their aesthetic value, but for the purpose of implementing what he advocated, namely, [overthrowing] the SAR and the Government.”

Lin also ruled that the arrows and crossbows, being put “conveniently together” in a camouflage bag meant they could be “could be easily transported assembled and put to use.”

The bag was placed next to Wong’s bedroom, on the floor of the storage room, and “could be easily accessed by [Wong] himself or any visitor,” the judge wrote.

The observations led to the “inevitable conclusion” that Wong had the crossbows “for the purpose of a military uprising against the HKSAR and the Chinese Government,” Lin ruled.

The judge handed a five-and-a-half-year jail sentence to Wong for the incitement charge, and a 30-month prison term for arms possession.

After applying a one-third reduction to the 30-month jail term for pleading guilty, and ordering the sentences to be served concurrently, Lin handed Wong a prison sentence of five years in total.

As for Cheung, Lin adopted a 24-month starting point for the assistant’s prison term. After reducing the sentence by a third for her guilty plea, Cheung was sentenced to 16 months in jail.

The judge also refused Kwan’s application to return three swords, which were listed as exhibits, to Wong. The barrister argued that the swords were given to Wong by his students, had a sentimental value, and that “no one would use them in an uprising.”

Lin rejected Kwan’s argument, adding that all sorts of items were used as weapons during the protests.

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.

Correction 1/3/2023: A previous version of this article misstated that the judge had ruled on Lin’s social media posts, when in fact the judge ruled on Wong’s social media posts. We regret the error.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.