A Portuguese man who allegedly managed social media accounts for the Hong Kong Independence Party saw his sedition charge upgraded to conspiracy to incite secession. The more serious offence under the national security law is punishable by up to 10 years in prison rather than two years for sedition.

National security Hong Kong flag
Photo: GovHK.

Prosecutors on Thursday applied to change the charge against defendant Joseph John, 40, who originally faced one count of conspiracy to commit an act or acts with seditious intention, local media reported.

He was first brought to the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts under the colonial-era sedition law last November when the authorities accused him of “publishing, making available and/or continuing to make available statements and photos on Facebook, Internet website[s], Twitter, Instagram and Telegram” with seditious intent. He was denied bail on national security grounds at the time and has been in custody since then.

Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed national security law, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts and mandates up to life imprisonment. Those convicted under the sedition law – last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still a British colony – face a maximum penalty of two years in prison.

According to the amended charge filed on Thursday, John was said to have conspired with other people to incite others to organise, plan, commit or participate in acts, whether or not by force or threat of force, with a view to committing secession or undermining national unification.

West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The alleged acts included separating the HKSAR from the People’s Republic of China, altering the city’s legal status by unlawful means and surrendering the HKSAR or any other part of China to a foreign country.

Principal Magistrate Peter Law, one of those hand-picked to oversee national security cases in the city, approved the charge amendment after the defence raised no objection. The case was subsequently transferred to the District Court, where the maximum jail sentence is capped at seven years.

The defendant did not apply for bail and was remanded in custody until his next court appearance on March 28.

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.