Liberate HK slogan ‘open and ambiguous’, court hears

A Chinese University professor specialising in communication studies on Wednesday challenged testimony presented at the trial of national security suspect Tong Ying-kit by the prosecution’s expert witness, saying historian Lau Chi-pang failed to see that the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” could have multiple meanings.

Tong Ying-kit, 24, is charged with inciting secession and terrorism for allegedly driving his motorcycle into police officers in Wan Chai on July 1 last year, while flying a flag that read “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”.

Last week, Lau, who is a history professor from Lingnan University, told the court that the protest slogan meant overthrowing the regime.

On day 13 of the trial, Professor Francis Lee from Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication – an expert witness for the defence – challenged Lau’s account, saying it had not been tested or wasn’t backed up by evidence.

Lee is one of the two defence experts who compiled a report for the court case.

He said his team had carried out different empirical studies since the anti-extradition protests began in 2019, which helped them find out how people perceive the slogan.

He said a focus group study was carried out during the protests, where 40 people who took part in the demonstrations were interviewed in group discussions.

The professor said he also collated views on the slogan made public by academics and commentators for a public discourse analysis, and studied around 2.5 million posts and comments on the LIHKG forum to look for a correlation between the liberate slogan and independence slogans.

Commenting on the findings of his studies, Professor Lee said people’s interpretation of the meaning of the liberate slogan varies.

He also said a protest slogan is not always a policy demand, as it can also articulate feelings and sentiments.

The expert disputed what he saw as Lau’s assertion in his report, namely that the liberate slogan only has one meaning which is to separate Hong Kong from the People’s Republic of China, and that the meaning is understood by everyone.

But judge Anthea Pang questioned Lee’s argument, saying the prosecution expert did not claim that the slogan only has one meaning that is accepted by everyone.

But Lee said he believed that was the logical implication of Lau’s statement.

Lee said the word “revolution” in Chinese, for example, does not necessarily mean overthrowing the regime, as it can also mean “big change” metaphorically.

He said if compound words can only have one meaning – as suggested by Lau, then there would be no such things as misunderstandings or miscommunication in this world.

The expert also said the historian’s interpretation is grounded in a theory of communication that is “untenable” and “too rigid”, adding that he did not pay sufficient attention to the use of rhetoric in language.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Anthony Chau asked Lee whether he could tell whether those who participated in his focus group study were really telling the truth.

Lee said he saw no reason why people would tell “outright lies”.

Chau also noted that Lee’s research team had set out topics and questions for their focus groups to discuss in an internal guide, including issues related to Hong Kong independence. He questioned whether the interviewers had asked the participants leading questions.

Lee said interviewers did not have to go through every prepared topic and question in focus group discussions, and it’s normal for them ask questions and make comments as the conversations go on. He said interviewers would not lead the participants to give certain answers.

Asked whether he agreed that Lau’s interpretation of the liberate slogan was correct, the communication studies expert said he would not say it was correct or incorrect, because the slogan is open and ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways.

When the prosecutor asked him whether he agreed that his research was unreliable and irrelevant, Lee said his studies had met the standard of academic research.

Lee was expected to continue giving testimony on Thursday.