A former editor of defunct Hong Kong independent news outlet Stand News on trial for sedition has been questioned over an op-ed that compared Hong Kong to the fictional totalitarian regime in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Meanwhile, the judge presiding over the trial asked whether Nineteen Eighty-Four was a book, and what it was about.

Stand News Chung Pui-kuen Patrick Lam
Chung Pui-kuen on 10 March, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Chung Pui-kuen appeared before Judge Kwok Wai-kin at District Court on Friday, as the sedition trial, which began last October and was supposed to last 20 days, continued. Chung, former chief editor Patrick Lam and Stand News’ parent company stand accused of publishing 17 allegedly “seditious” article between July 2020 and December 2021.

The prosecution continued their questioning of Chung on Friday, discussing a commentary written by veteran journalist Allan Au.

In the op-ed, Au altered a well-known slogan from the novel to apply it to what he saw as the context of Hong Kong. The rewrite can be loosely translated as: “A secure party is a secure country, destruction is adherence, mutual destruction is prosperity.”

Au was using “newspeak” – a fictional language in the story – to amend the lines, Au wrote.

Four of Au’s op-eds that were published by the independent online outlet form part of the alleged offence. However, the prosecutor admitted three more commentaries by Au on Thursday. This commentary mentioning the work of George Orwell was among the three exhibits recently added.

The 17 allegedly seditious Stand News articles – click to view
  1. Profile of Gwyneth Ho, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 7, 2020.
  2. Profile of Owen Chow, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 27, 2020.
  3. Profile of Fergus Leung, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on August 12, 2020.
  4. Commentary by Chan Pui-man, Apple Daily’s former associate publisher, criticising speech crimes, published on September 12, 2020.
  5. Commentary by Nathan Law, a former lawmaker now in self-exile, on “how to resist” under the national security law, published on September 20, 2020.
  6. Profile of Law on his “battlefront” of calling for sanctions on the Hong Kong government in the UK, published on December 9, 2020.
  7. Commentary by Law on “resilience in a chaotic world,” published on December 13, 2020.
  8. Feature interview with Ted Hui, a former lawmaker in self-exile, after he fled Hong Kong with his family, published on December 14, 2020.
  9. Feature interview with Baggio Leung, a former lawmaker in self-exile, as he called for sanctions on Hong Kong and a “lifeboat scheme for Hongkongers,” published on December 15, 2020.
  10. Commentary by Sunny Cheung, an activist in self-exile, responding to being wanted by the Hong Kong government, published on December 28, 2020.
  11. Commentary by Allan Au, a veteran journalist, on “new words in 2020,” which included “national security,” “disqualified” and “in exile,” published on December 29, 2020.
  12. Commentary by Au calling a national security trial a show, published on February 3, 2021.
  13. Commentary by Law paralleling the mass arrests of candidates in the democrats’ primaries to mass arrests during Taiwan’s white terror period, published on March 2, 2021.
  14. Commentary by Au accusing the authorities of “lawfare” in usage of the sedition law, published on June 1, 2021.
  15. Commentary by Au describing Hong Kong as a disaster scene after the implementation of national security law, published on June 22, 2021.
  16. Feature about CUHK graduates’ march on campus to mourn the second anniversary of the police-student clash in 2019, published on November 11, 2021.
  17. Report on Chow Hang-tung’s response to being honoured with the Prominent Chinese Democracy Activist award, published on December 5, 2021.

The lead prosecutor Laura Ng asked Chung Pui-kuen, Stand News’s former editor-in-chief, if the party mentioned in the modified slogan was the Chinese Communist Party.

“I think you can say that,” Chung said.

Responding to Ng’s follow-up questions, Chung told the court he thought the line “destruction is adherence” related to One Country, Two Systems. Chung said that some people may think that Hong Kong’s government had been claiming to “adhere” to that model of governance when in fact they were “destroying” it.

1984 cropped book cover
Photo: Harper Collins Publishers.

Regarding the quote “mutual destruction is prosperity,” Chung said he thought Au was referring to how some people and the authorities described the effect of the national security law differently, since the government praised the law for helping the international hub to restore prosperity.

Close to the end of the questioning on this op-ed, Kwok interrupted Ng and asked Chung if Nineteen Eighty-Four was a book, adding: “I have never read it, can you tell me a bit more about the book?”

After Chung’s gave a brief overview of Orwell’s novel, Ng said: “Wait, so this is a rewrite? What are the original lines?” Chung told Ng he could give her the original lines later.

Hypothetical question of the 911 attack

In the opinion piece, Au said the authorities thought they were the “king of the universe,” as they were set to exercise jurisdiction over foreigners abroad using the national security law.

Stand News Chung Pui-kuen Patrick Lam
Chung Pui-kuen(left) and Patrick Lam(right) on 10 March, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Chung explained that many people were shocked that speeches and acts by non-Hongkongers overseas were also subject to the national security law, “Au saw it as an ‘overbearing’ law, and he wasn’t the only one,” Chung said.

“What’s the problem with the law’s international reach?” Ng asked. She asked Chung if a group of terrorists were on a plane heading to hit the World Trade Centre, would the US government act on it even if the terrorists were yet to enter US territory.

“This is an interesting hypothetical question… I’ll have to think about it,” Chung said.

He later added that he understood Au’s worries, but that did not mean that he agreed with Au, “I did not have a conclusion on this matter back then, it was a new law.”

Au’s ‘radical’ stance

According to Ng, the police took screenshots of 165 articles by Au published by Stand News before its website went dark on 29 December, 2021.

“Do you remember if any of Au’s 165 commentaries contained positive comments about the government?” Ng asked. Chung said he could not recall any article of that kind.

“It’s impressive how he can thought of so many complaints about the government,” Ng replied, asking if Chung agreed Au was a person with strong political stance.

Allan Au Stand News
Allan Au in front of the Wan Chai District Court on November 1, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The former chief editor told Ng a person’s political stance could vary depending on what issue it was related to. Au, as a long-time host of a radio show on public broadcaster RTHK, had been seen by many as a journalist with neutral political attitude, Chung said.

Chung said he had trusted Au, therefore, he did not spend a long time editing Au’s op-eds.

“So you never factchecked what Au said in his articles?” Ng asked.

“I wouldn’t call it factchecking, but there were times when I searched for some terms or incidents he mentioned in the articles I was not so familiar with,” Chung said.

Citing the paragraphs in which Au said the education sector was undergoing a “tsunami,” Ng told Chung that Au was employing a “radical” style to write about the transformation of the city’s education system after the establishment of the national security law.

“I don’t want to argue on the term ‘radical,’ let’s just say I agree with you,” Chung said.

The trial will continue next Tuesday.

Sedition law

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 digital news outlet Stand News ceased operations and deleted its website in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by over 200 national security police officers. Seven people connected to the independent outlet were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to “publish seditious publications.” However, only ex-chief editor Chung Pui-kuen, acting chief editor Patrick Lam and parent company Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited were charged under the colonial-era law.

Advocacy groups, the UN, and western countries criticised the arrests as a sign of declining media freedoms, while now-Chief Executive John Lee condemned “bad apples” who “polluted” press freedom following the raids. 

The trial began in October 2022 with the court considering 17 allegedly seditious articles, including interviews, profiles, hard news reporting and opinion pieces. Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed security law and carries a maximum penalty of two years behind bars.

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Lea Mok

Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.