One of the 47 pro-democracy figures charged with conspiring to commit subversion had once ordered his social media managers not to use a popular protest slogan or to include messages of support for Hong Kong independence, his assistant has told a national security trial.
Former district councillor Ricky Or’s assistant Cyrus Chan appeared before a panel of three designated national security judges at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on Monday.
Chan, who was also Or’s campaign manager during an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020, also told the court he was the one who posted an endorsement of an online petition titled “Resolute Resistance, Inked without Regret,” which stated that the participants in the primaries would use their power as lawmakers to veto the government’s budget.
Or is among 47 pro-democracy figures who stand accused of organising or participating in the unofficial primaries, with the aim of selecting the strongest candidates in the hope of winning a controlling majority in the legislature.
He is one of the 16 defendants – including former lawmakers, ex-district councillors and activists – to plead not guilty to the charge.
Prosecutors have alleged that the democrats intended to abuse their powers – if elected as lawmakers – to indiscriminately veto government bills, paralyse government operations, dissolve the Legislative Council (LegCo), and ultimately force the city’s leader to resign.
The maximum penalty for the charge, an offence under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law, is life in prison. Many of the defendants have been detained since March 2021, and those who pleaded guilty are awaiting sentencing after the lengthy trial of those who entered not-guilty pleas ends.
No protest slogans
Questioned by defence counsel Elson Tong, Chan told the court it was mostly himself and about 10 others who would write posts for Or’s Facebook page. Chan also said Or would read and sign off on “important” posts, but he would not vet all of the posts about community work and administrative affairs.
Chan added that he was in charge of approving drafts and making adjustments for promotional materials such as videos or leaflets before handing them over to Or for final checks. Chan is currently a member of the Concern Group For Tseung Kwan O People’s Livelihood, a group that was previously chaired by Or.
Asked whether amendments were ever made to those materials, Chan told the court Or forbade the concern group from using the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” or voicing any support for Hong Kong independence after the 2019 district council elections.
The slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” was first used by localist activist Edward Leung, before being adopted as a key slogan during the 2019 pro-democracy protests. During the city’s first national security trial in July 2021, the phrase was ruled capable of inciting secession – an offence under the security legislation.
Protests erupted in June 2019 over a since-axed extradition bill. They escalated into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour, amid calls for democracy and anger over Beijing’s encroachment. Demonstrators demanded an independent probe into police conduct, amnesty for those arrested and a halt to the characterisation of protests as “riots.”
Chan also told the court he was ordered never to use the words “mutual destruction” in Or’s Facebook posts.
Judge Johnny Chan interjected, asking if Or had ever defined what “mutual destruction” meant, to which the witness said: “We didn’t discuss the definition in detail, but he told me the concern group’s view was this: ‘If the government is paralysed, where does Hong Kong go from there? What happens if it’s paralysed?’”
Tong then pulled up a screenshot of Or’s Facebook page with the former district councillor’s endorsement of “Inked Without Regret.”
The document, listed as a key document by the prosecutors in their opening submission, called on candidates to endorse protesters’ five demands and declare that they would use their constitutional power to compel the chief executive to respond to the demands, including by vetoing the budget.
Chan told the court that he had been the one to post the declaration. Asked by Tong whether he discussed the matter with Or, Chan said they had discussed it on WhatsApp.
Testing the waters
Tong also questioned Chan on Or’s intention to join the primaries, asking why the former district councillor hoped to participate. Chan told the court that Or hoped to treat the primaries as a “public opinion poll” to gauge the support of his voter base’, and decide whether to join the legislative election based on that result.
Chan added that Or was among three other members of the Community Alliance who expressed an interest in running after former Sai Kung district council chair Ben Chung informed them about the primaries in March or April.
Chan said Or would have to mortgage his house if he chose to take part in the LegCo election as it would cost about HK$1.5 million to HK$2 million, compared to HK$300,000 to HK$500,000 for the primaries.
Judge Alex Lee then asked whether “it was not the case that Or would take part regardless of the result of the primaries,” and whether Or would not take part in the primaries if the results of the primaries – an opportunity to “test the waters” – were unfavourable. Chan agreed.
Chan said Or attended the first coordination meeting for the New Territories East primaries in April 2020, quoting him as saying that there were “conflicts and disputes” during the meeting, which led to him leaving early. Asked if Or had a limited idea of what was said at the primary election coordination meetings, Chan agreed.
Or also gave up on running for the District Council (Second) functional constituency, known otherwise as the “superseat,” after considering that ex-district councillor Lester Shum was a more popular pick in that constituency.
Chan’s testimony continues on Tuesday.