An elderly busker who played a popular Hong Kong protest song has been jailed for 30 days after being convicted of performing in public and raising money without a permit, with the judge saying that the offences amounted to “soft resistance.”

Li Jiexin outside the Shatin Magistrates’ Courts on October 24, 2023. Photo: James Lee/HKFP.
Li Jiexin outside the Shatin Magistrates’ Courts on October 24, 2023. Photo: James Lee/HKFP.

Wearing a navy blue jacket and a pair of aviators, Li Jiexin appeared before Magistrate Amy Chan at the Shatin Magistrates’ Courts on Tuesday. After handing down the sentence, Chan said he would appeal. He was released after posting a HK$2,000 cash bail.

The court heard that Li played the erhu with an amplifier without permission from the police chief outside Mong Kok East and Tai Wai MTR stations, and on a footbridge outside Central’s International Financial Centre (IFC) on four occasions between August 3, 2021, and September 29, 2022.

The 69-year-old retiree, who was representing himself, pleaded not guilty in May to four counts of playing a musical instrument in public without a permit and three counts of collecting money in a public place without permission.

Delivering the sentence, Chan said Li was playing Glory to Hong Kong, a song popularised during the 2019 extradition bill protests and unrest.

Shatin Law Courts Building, Shatin Magistrates' Courts
Shatin Magistrates’ Courts. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“It is not the case that there’s no bottom line when it comes to artistic creations,” Chan said in Cantonese, referring to what a cybercrime police sergeant said when he testified during the trial in July. The sergeant had said there was a “high degree of connection” between Glory to Hong Kong and anti-government sentiment, as well as assemblies, “riots,” and “advocacy” of Hong Kong independence.

The judge said the lyrics of the song contained the phrase “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” referring to a protest slogan popularised during the demonstrations four years ago and which judges ruled was capable of inciting secession during the city’s first national security trial.

Li, who had only played the melody of the song on the erhu, said in court earlier that he was playing Glory to Carrie Lam, supposedly a parody of the protest song that has the same melody.

Freedom to perform ‘not absolute’

Written by protesters during the 2019 demonstrations, Glory to Hong Kong has been at the centre of repeated incidents at international sporting events, in which the song was played instead of China’s national anthem.

The artist page of the team behind 2019 protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” and its related versions on streaming platform Spotify. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
The artist page of the team behind 2019 protest song “Glory to Hong Kong” and its related versions on streaming platform Spotify. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The government said in June it was seeking an injunction to ban the song. The court shot down the attempt in July, but authorities have since been allowed to appeal the rejection.

Delivering the sentence on Tuesday, Chan cited the government’s ongoing bid to ban unlawful acts linked to the protest song, saying that Li’s playing of the song could have created a “ripple effect” across society that endangers national security, and that the court’s ruling should serve as an example to the public.

The magistrate added that the national security law was already in effect at the time of the offences, and that the defendant had engaged in “soft resistance” to provoke societal divisions.

“[The defendant] should be glad that he was not charged with more serious crimes,” Chan said.

Hong Kong China flags National Day 2023 patriotism
National and Hong Kong flags in Hong Kong, on October 1, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Li told the court in July that he believed he was entitled to perform on the streets of Hong Kong under the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which forms the basis of Hongkongers’ rights to “engage in academic research, literary and artistic creation, and other cultural activities” enshrined in Article 34 of the Basic Law.

While Chan ruled that Li’s citing of the covenant was constitutional, she said his freedom to perform was “not absolute,” and that he could not just do as he pleased without following the law. Li had earlier testified that he gave up applying for a permit after he read that such applications took 14 days to process and found such regulations “unforgiving,” Chan said.

Regarding the fundraising charges, Chan said the fact that the defendant did not know he needed a permit from the Secretary of Home and Youth Affairs could not amount to a reasonable defence.

Chan also ruled that the police officers who approached Li did indeed give out verbal warnings that he did not heed.

In mitigation, Li said he opposed the court’s ruling. He revealed that he was turning 70 soon, and had recently underwent a heart surgery. “So what if I die in prison?” he said in Mandarin.

Hong Kong Police
The Hong Kong Police Force emblem outside the police headquarters in Wan Chai. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Li questioned how the court could say that he was playing the protest song based on the seven musical notes – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.

The busker then quoted lines from the Chinese national anthem – “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!” – and asked the court: “Are these inciteful words?”

“If the judge truly stands on the side of justice, she will cast aside all her biases and make the correct ruling,” he said, raising his voice.

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.” 

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James Lee is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press with an interest in culture and social issues. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he witnessed the institution’s transformation over the course of the 2019 extradition bill protests and after the passing of the Beijing-imposed security law.

Since joining HKFP in 2023, he has covered local politics, the city’s housing crisis, as well as landmark court cases including the 47 democrats national security trial. He was previously a reporter at The Standard where he interviewed pro-establishment heavyweights and extensively covered the Covid-19 pandemic and Hong Kong’s political overhauls under the national security law.