Hong Kong legal scholar Benny Tai’s “mutual destruction” plan could have led to a catastrophe akin to a “worldwide nuclear explosion,” a former politician testifying against his peers in a landmark national security case involving dozens of pro-democracy figures has said.

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

The description by ex-district councillor Andrew Chiu emerged on Tuesday, the 38th day of a lengthy trial against 16 democrats who denied the charge of conspiracy to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial primary election held in July 2020.

In his testimony for the prosecution, Chiu told a panel of three designated judges presiding over the case that by July 13, 2020, a day after the two-day voting period ended, Tai was uncertain whether the primary election violated the national security law which had been promulgated by Beijing on June 30.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang had warned a few days before the primaries that the polls may violate the new Beijing-imposed security legislation. He also told organisers of the primaries to tread carefully due to calls for elected lawmakers to veto the government’s annual budget.

On Tuesday, Chiu testified that Tai, who was an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong at the time, said on July 13 that his evaluation of the legal risks involved in the unofficial election had been based on his understanding of the common law. He did know how to assess such risks if he were to analyse it from the continental law perspective.

Benny Tai
Benny Tai. Photo: Studio Incendo.

“It was the first time for me to hear that he was actually expressing that he was not certain the primaries truly did not contravene the new national security law,” Chiu said.

He went on to say that he did not read Tai’s article titled “Ten steps to real mutual destruction – the inevitable fate of Hong Kong,” published by the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, which has since ceased operations, in April that year, until July 14, when a senior reporter from the newspaper contacted him.

In the piece that has been repeatedly cited by the prosecutors as proof of the alleged conspiracy, Tai had set out a 10-step timetable and roadmap that would “steer the city towards mutual destruction,” beginning with the government’s disqualification of pro-democracy candidates in the Legislative Council election.

“When I read the for the first time, it sent a chill up my spine,” Chiu told the court.

He added that had Tai made it clear that the primary election was part of the mutual destruction plan, which could result in catastrophic outcomes.

“I didn’t know it was that specific. He wrote very clearly that step by step, it would lead to what I would call a worldwide nuclear explosion,” he said.

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Lead prosecutor Jonathan Man also asked Chiu about a WhatsApp message from Tai to the participants of the primaries, in which he clarified what he had said publicly, while adding he had not mentioned vetoing every bill and paralysing government operation.

When asked why Tai sent such a message, Chiu said it was because the academic knew he had “stepped on the line,” meaning the primaries contained “elements contravening the national security law.”

Chiu added Tai was trying to “unify the views” of the participants, after Judge Alex Lee asked if the purpose of Tai’s message was to warn other people what they could say in public.

Judge Andrew Chan followed up and asked Chiu if the reason the legal scholar wanted to “unify” the views of the candidates was because he did not want them to “step over the red line,” meaning violating the national security law.

“Because paralysing the operation of the government itself is subversion,” the judge said.

Chiu replied: “Yes, that is correct.”

The trial resumes on Thursday.

A total of 16 democracy advocates are currently facing a non-jury trial after they pleaded not guilty to the charge. It is estimated that the trial will last for at least 90 days. The remaining defendants, some of whom have already been detained for more than two years, face being sentenced to up to life in prison after the trial concludes.

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.