Former law professor Benny Tai had intended to “politicise” the work of Hong Kong’s district councils and promote his ideology of manoeuvring the constitution to resist the government, a local court has heard in the landmark national security case involving 47 pro-democracy figures.

Andrew Chiu
Andrew Chiu. File photo: Andrew Chiu, via Facebook.

New accusations against the legal scholar, who was a leader of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, emerged on Wednesday. It was the first day of ex-district councillor Andrew Chiu’s testimony as a witness for the prosecution in the case surrounding an alleged conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in 2020.

Chiu was the convenor of defunct political group Power for Democracy, which was said to have executed the primaries by helping coordinate participating candidates, recruiting volunteers and publicising the polls, among other roles.

Chiu, whose left ear was bitten off by a man during a protest-related confrontation in November 2019, wore a prosthetic ear in court on Wednesday, which was visible as he was led into the courtroom by three corrections officers via a special hallway.

The 37-year-old, who had pleaded guilty to the subversion charge, told a panel of three designated judges that he met Tai through work in 2012 and remained in touch with him over the years. He said following the 79-day long civil disobedience movement in 2014, which ended in police clearance, Tai, who was then an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong, became a leader of a group of “more progressive” people. He would often bring up “new ideas,” Chiu said.

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Benny Tai. File photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

According to the ex-politician, Tai later proposed a plan to find candidates within the pro-democracy camp to vie for seats in the 18 District Councils, with an aim of seizing majority control of the local bodies and ultimately bagging spots on a committee which would elect the city’s chief executive, prior to the electoral overhaul.

Tai’s proposal included intending to make use of government funds provided to support community activities to back the promotion of democratic development, Chiu testified. He described such plans as Tai’s intention to “politicise” district-level work.

“Besides promoting it, Benny Tai politicised the district council elections at that time, which were about local affairs, through his promotion,” Chiu said in court.

He went on to say that after the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory in the 2019 District Council election amid public anger fuelled by the since-axed extradition bill, the culture and atmosphere in the local councils changed.

“Some political novices or newly-elected councillors from the localist camp… they preferred sloganeering,” Chiu said. “Together with more labelling in the councils and making it more populist, this situation slowly extended to the Legislative Council election.”

He added that the localists and newly emerged politicians became more “ambitious because they were riding on discontent” over the extradition bill.

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At the centre of the alleged conspiracy was the unofficial primary election that saw more than 600,000 Hongkongers casting their ballots on July 11 and 12 in 2020. The polls aimed to maximise the opposition camp’s chances of winning majority control of the legislature at an upcoming Legislative Council election, which was later postponed due to Covid-19.

The 47 democrats stand accused of having intended to abuse lawmakers’ powers to indiscriminately veto the annual budget, paralyse government operations and ultimately force the chief executive to step down.

Chiu agreed with High Court judge Andrew Chan who asked him if Tai was trying to “copy” the success of the 2019 district polls in the legislative election. The plan of seeking more than half of the legislative seats materialised amid public aspiration that opposition lawmakers could “make a change” with their controlling majority, he said.


The prosecution on Wednesday revealed that Luke Lai King-fai, ex-chief officer of Power for Democracy, was also considered a “co-conspirator” in the current case, even though he was never arrested or prosecuted.

Lai’s name should be included in the indictment, said judge Alex Lee – one of three designated national security judges presiding over the case. He later said prosecutors should at least provide a list of individuals whom they had identified as “co-conspirators” despite not being charged.

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A national security billboard. Photo: GovHK.

It was “undesirable” that the defence did not know whose acts or declarations may be used against their clients, Lee said, adding the prosecution should have a clearer idea of what evidence they wanted to submit under the co-conspirator rule, compared to when they first opened their case in early February.

Prosecutor Jonathan Man replied by saying they had already set out the scope of evidence they wished to submit under the co-conspirator rule in a 25-page document last month. The document had mentioned Lai’s name, he said.

The co-conspirator rule allows for statements made outside court by an alleged co-conspirator to be admitted as evidence against all involved.

Wednesday’s revelation came two days after the prosecution named former Kwun Tong District Council chairman Choy Chak-hung a “co-conspirator.” He was not among the 55 democrats apprehended in January 2021 in relation to the case, with the authorities pressing charges against 47 of them later. The remaining arrestees have not been formally charged.

A total of 16 democrats have been on trial without a jury since early February after they pleaded not guilty. The remaining 31 defendants, many of whom have been detained for more than two years, will face sentencing of up to life imprisonment when the trial concludes. The trial, which is expected to last for 90 days, continues on Thursday.

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

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.