The purpose of an online declaration that called on candidates to endorse the five demands advocated in the 2019 extradition bill protests was to show “will for resistance,” a Hong Kong activist has said at a high-profile national security trial relating to 47 pro-democracy figures.

Owen Chow
Hong Kong activist Owen Chow. Photo: Owen Chow, via Facebook.

Monday marked day 100 of a lengthy trial of 16 former lawmakers, ex-district councillors and other activists, who pleaded not guilty to a charge of conspiring to commit subversion. A panel of three designated national security judges heard the second day of Owen Chow’s testimony, as he faced questions on a key document in the case which he jointly initiated with two other defendants.

The case revolves around an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020, which aimed to help the pro-democracy camp select the strongest election candidates and win a controlling majority in the then-70-seat legislature.

Prosecutors have alleged that the democrats intended to abuse their powers as lawmakers – if elected – to indiscriminately vote down government bills, paralyse government operations, cause the chief executive to dissolve the Legislative Council, and ultimately force the city’s leader to resign.

Those who pleaded guilty are awaiting sentencing after the trial of their co-defendants is completed, with the maximum being life imprisonment.

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Chow, 26, who identified as a localist, drafted an online declaration titled “Resolute Resistance, Inked without Regret” on June 9, 2020, with former district councillors Sam Cheung and Fergus Leung.

The document, listed as a key document by the prosecutors in their opening submission, called on candidates to endorse the five demands. They were asked to declare that they would deploy the power conferred to the Legislative Council under the Basic Law, including vetoing the budget, to compel the chief executive to respond to the demands.

Protesters advocated for the withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill that sparked the demonstrations, and called for an independent investigation into alleged use of excessive force by police. They also asked the authorities to retract the characterisation of the protests as “riots,” grant amnesty to those arrested during the demonstrations, and implement universal suffrage for the chief executive and legislative council elections.

Signatories were also asked to say that they would halt their electioneering activities should their support rating fall outside of the scope of the expected seats obtainable for the respective constituency.

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Photo: Benny Tai via Twitter.

The prosecution alleged earlier that the declaration was proof of the their “unwavering pledge to knowingly achieve the impugned objective regardless of any legal consequences.”

On Monday, Chow told the court that legal scholar Benny Tai’s decision that candidates of the primary election did not have to sign any document to avoid creating evidence for disqualification was the “fuse” that prompted him and the two other defendants to draft the online declaration.

Chow also pointed to the Legislative Council election in 2016, which he said showed that pro-independence ideologies was the “red line” for the authorities to bar certain candidates from standing. During the coordination meetings the democrats held in 2020, however, they did not discuss Hong Kong independence, Chow said.

“Therefore I don’t understand what [Tai] was afraid of,” he said, speaking in Cantonese.

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Protest scene in Hong Kong in August, 2019. Photo: May James/HKFP.

The three initiators of the declaration did not believe the democrats could win more than 35 seats in the legislative race, Chow said, which led them to think the general election should return as many legislators with the “will for resistance” as possible.

“Electing legislators with the will for resistance was more reasonable… therefore we had to find a way to show to the voters the will of resistance. Inked without Regret was a declaration that put the political ideologies of the candidates to competition,” he said.

The document, which had 37 signatories including self-exiled activists Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung, had no binding effect on any candidate who signed it, Chow testified.

He added that he believed it was the responsibility of lawmakers to pursue the five demands, but that he did not advocate for vetoing the budget indiscriminately in the online declaration.

Chow will continue his testimony on Tuesday afternoon.

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.