Published: 00:52, April 18, 2024 | Updated: 10:08, April 18, 2024
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National unity: Secessionists pose ongoing threat
By Grenville Cross

On April 11, an extraordinary trial concluded in the District Court (DCCC 210/2023). Joseph John, also known as Wong Kin-chung, who holds a Hong Kong permanent identity card as well as a Portuguese passport, pleaded guilty to an offense of conspiring to incite others to commit secession through online posts. He styled himself the “president” of the “Hong Kong Independence Party”, and operated its Facebook and other social media accounts, including a United Kingdom-registered website.

The trial judge, Ernest Lin Kam-hung, adopted a starting point for sentence of 78 months imprisonment, but sentenced John to five years’ imprisonment, to acknowledge his guilty plea.

The prosecution disclosed that 42 posts circulated online from Sept 16, 2019, to Nov 1, 2022. Although secessionist activity was criminalized by the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) on June 30, 2020, 35 of the posts occurred after its enactment.

The posts were bizarre, seeking not only Hong Kong’s independence but also the stationing of American and British troops in the city. Judge Lin said John had “distorted history, demonized the Chinese government, and appealed to foreign countries to destroy Hong Kong and China”. His posts advocated Hong Kong’s “decolonization” from China, its designation as an independent Commonwealth nation, and crowdfunding for an independent Hong Kong army.

Not even Chris Patten, Iain Duncan Smith, or Liz Truss, as the UK’s most rabid Sinophobes, have ever gone as far as John (although this could come), and his state of mind seemed questionable. However, Judge Lin found his activity was premeditated, and there was no suggestion he suffered from any mental disorder. He appears to have been in deadly earnest, and his crime, which could have led the young and the gullible astray, shows the secessionists remain a danger to Hong Kong, notwithstanding the NSL.  

This was undoubtedly why Judge Lin took John’s crime so seriously. It was of a type that has emerged all too often lately, and it recalled the secessionists’ dastardly role in the recent troubles.

The secessionist movement was heavily involved in the events leading up to the insurrection of 2019. One of its first acts after invading the Legislative Council on July 1 of that year was to scrawl “Hong Kong is not China” on the walls, and to desecrate national and regional symbols.

Although the secessionists once posed a real threat to national unity, they have been largely neutralized. However, as Joseph John’s conviction showed, the threats have not gone away. There are still people in our midst who want to harm China by dividing it up, and the city cannot afford to let down its guard

The secessionists played a significant role in opposing the national security proposals of Tung Chee-hwa’s government in 2003, which included the criminalization of secession. After those proposals were abandoned, the secessionists were emboldened, and galvanized on various fronts.

In the University of Hong Kong, for example, they infiltrated the Students’ Union. Starting in February 2014, the union’s official publication, The Undergrad, published articles calling for “the Hong Kong nation to decide its own fate”, and for “democracy and independence in Hong Kong”.

The secessionists also exhibited open hostility to visitors from elsewhere in China. On Feb 16, 2014, for example, over 100 so-called “nativists” harassed innocent mainland Chinese shoppers in Tsim Sha Tsui, screaming “locusts” at them. Once the insurrection broke out, they torched mainland-owned businesses, and their acolytes within the hospitality industry refused to serve customers who spoke Putonghua in their restaurants (unless they hailed from Taiwan).

Another secessionist entity was “Civic Passion”, founded by Wong Yeung-tat in 2012. It organized summer camps to provide “lectures on localism” and “military style training”. Its sister body, “Hong Kong Indigenous”, was created by Edward Leung Tin-kei and Ray Wong Toi-yeung in 2015, and made its mark by organizing street violence and hostile receptions for mainland visitors in the New Territories.

Whenever the secessionists fell afoul of the law, which was often, the now-disbanded Civic Party lawyers were always there to hold their hands.    

On Aug 14, 2018, the secessionists must have been ecstatic when the Foreign Correspondents’ Club provided a platform for one of their leading lights, Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of the “Hong Kong National Party”. He duly condemned the “Chinese colonial masters”, and said he hoped the “international community can, like the United States, objectively review the imperialistic threat that is coming from China”. He described the “cry for Hong Kong’s independence” as an “ethical cry for liberation”. He wrapped things up by calling on the US to “deal an economic blow to China” by reviewing the US-Hong Kong Policy Act and to “start sanctioning” Hong Kong’s government officials (which was exactly what the US did two years later).

On the electoral front, the secessionists also abused the city’s burgeoning democracy. In 2015, after “Youngspiration” was founded by Baggio Leung Chung-hang, it advocated the “Hong Kong nation’s right to self-determination”. When Leung and Regine Yau Wai-ching were elected to the Legislative Council in 2016, they paraded their separatist aspirations. When called upon to take their oath of office, they pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation”, produced a banner reading “Hong Kong is not China”, and insulted the Chinese race.

Even after the NSL was enacted, some secessionists were not deterred. On July 1, 2020, for example, Tong Ying-kit, who was subsequently convicted of inciting secession and sentenced to six years and six months’ imprisonment, drove around the streets with a banner proclaiming “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”.

Then, in 2021, Adam Ma Chun-man was convicted of promoting separatism on numerous occasions through his speeches and chants, including “Hong Kong Independence, the only way”, and received five years’ imprisonment.

When Tony Chung Hon-lam, the former convener of “Studentlocalism”, was convicted of actively participating in secessionist activity online, he received three years and four months’ imprisonment, having been given a 25 percent discount for pleading guilty. (Although he was granted early release under supervision in 2023, he lied to the authorities, as Ted Hui Chi-fung had done before him, and, instead of taking the permitted holiday in Japan, he fled to the UK to seek asylum.)    

Although the secessionists once posed a real threat to national unity, they have been largely neutralized. However, as Joseph John’s conviction showed, the threats have not gone away. There are still people in our midst who want to harm China by dividing it up, and the city cannot afford to let down its guard.

In the 19th century, foreign powers carved China up like a turkey to suit their imperial agendas, but those days are well and truly over. Although they have provided safe haven to many secessionists who have fled abroad, some of their proxies remain active in Hong Kong, albeit generally low-profile. When tracked down, they must expect to face the condign punishment meted out to the likes of Tong, Ma, Chung and John. If this does not eradicate the menace, the interests of deterrence may require an even tougher response from the judiciary.

The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.