A former Hong Kong District Council chairperson has begun his testimony for the prosecution in a high-profile trial concerning 47 pro-democracy figures under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Ben Chung
Ben Chung. File photo: Ben Chung, via Facebook.

Ex-Sai Kung District Council chief Ben Chung, one of the 31 defendants who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit subversion, was called to the stand on Thursday. He was the third accomplice witness testifying against his fellow democrats in the case surrounding an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020.

Dressed in a white checkered shirt and dark navy blazer, Chung was led into the courtroom by two correction officers through a special passageway. He took an oath before the three designated national security judges overseeing the case, and removed his face mask to give his testimony.

Prosecutor Andy Lo began his questioning by asking the 34-year-old about his relationship with some of the key figures in the case, including legal scholar Benny Tai and ex-lawmaker Au Nok-hin, the “primary movers” of the unofficial polls that aimed to help the opposition camp secure majority control in the legislature.

The 47 defendants were said to have intended to abuse the power bestowed on lawmakers and enshrined in the Basic Law to veto government bills and budgets indiscriminately. The ultimate goal was to paralyse government operations and force the chief executive to resign, the prosecution alleged.

Chung told the court on Thursday that Power for Democracy, a defunct political organisation for which he was a deputy convenor, had tried to coordinate the pro-democracy camp for the official legislative election scheduled for September 2020, which was eventually postponed for more than a year due to Covid-19.

Power for Democracy “wanted to play a role” in the coordination work, Chung said citing another defendant Andrew Chiu, who was the group’s convenor at the time. But not many people showed interest in Chiu’s plan, Chung recalled, and they later learned that Tai and Au were already discussing a coordination project with different democrats.

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A meeting was set up in February 2020 for the Power for Democracy duo to meet Tai, who was an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong. During the meeting, Chung learned that Tai had already contacted “a certain number of democrats” and some information technology experts to design a mechanism for the primary election, he told the court.

Chung also testified that Tai wanted to raise funds for the primary election through crowdfunding, which he and Chung raised concerns about. The legal scholar was said to have justified his suggestion by saying it was to prevent political novices from thinking that the polls were dominated by major political parties only.

Asked by High Court judge Andrew Chan to confirm whether Power for Democracy was “formally appointed” to execute the primary elections in May 2020, Chung said he did not know anything about any written agreements.

As the then-chairperson of the Sai Kung District Council, Chung was also invited by Tai to oversee coordination meetings of the New Territories East constituency, he said.

Prosecutor Lo showed the witness a few articles penned by Tai around the time when Chung attended a meeting in April 2020. The articles published in the defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily described a legislative majority as a constitutional weapon of mass destruction and discussed the meaning of “mutual destruction.”

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Organisers of the primary elections at a press conference on June 9, 2020. Photo: Rachel Wong/HKFP.

Chung was asked if the content of the articles was discussed or commented on by participants of the meeting, which included journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho and activist Owen Chow. The ex-district council chair said he had no recollection of such an instance.

Chung will continue his testimony on Friday.

Thursday marked day 52 of the 90-day trial of the 16 prominent politicians and activists who pleaded not guilty. Together with the democrats who admitted to the charge, the group could face up to life in prison if convicted.

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.