‘People understand liberate slogan differently’

An academic from the University of Hong Kong testifying for the defence told the national security trial of Tong Ying-kit on Friday that the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” means different things to different people, and it doesn’t necessarily refer to overthrowing a regime.

Tong, 24, is charged with terrorism and inciting secession for allegedly driving his motorbike into a group of police officers while flying a flag with that slogan on July 1, 2020.

On day 10 of Tong’s trial, justices Esther Loh, Anthea Pang and Wilson Chan ruled that there was a case for the defence to answer.

The defence opened its case, calling Professor Eliza Lee from the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Politics and Public Administration as a witness.

She wrote an expert report for the case together with a professor from the Chinese University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

According to the classical Chinese dictionary Cihai, the first two characters of the protest slogan in Chinese, Gwong Fuk, can be interpreted as restoring an old undertaking or returning to a previous state, Professor Lee said.

From a historical point of view, the words can mean restoring an ancestors’ undertaking, she said, and they don’t necessarily mean taking over a regime.

She noted that from 2012, the term Gwong Fuk was used by protesters targeting parallel traders, with rallies dubbed “Reclaim Sheung Shui” and “Reclaim Tuen Mun” in English.

She said there was reason to believe when localist Edward Leung coined the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” in 2016 which would become widely used three years later, he had the earlier demonstrations in mind.

She said taking into account Leung’s own explanation of why he chose the phrase “Revolution of Our Times”, her team concluded that it was a political message meaning to “recover an old order that was lost and to unite freedom-loving people of all ages to bring about historical change in this significant period”.

The academic noted their study shows that the slogan became popular on the LIHKG forum from late July 2019.

She said her research team believed that protesters had used the slogan more frequently amid community protests such as Reclaim Tuen Mun Park and Reclaim Sheung Shui that month, and people needed something new to express their anger towards the Yuen Long mob attack on July 21.

She also said while the wording of the slogan remained the same, the context in which Leung used it in 2016 and how protesters used it in 2019 was different. The professor said unlike previous large-scale protests, the anti-extradition demonstrations in 2019 were largely leaderless.

She said the decentralised nature of the movement had led to ambiguity over the slogan’s meaning among its users and recipients, and a focus group study done at the time showed that protesters attributed different meanings to it.

“It meant different things to different people,” she said.

The professor also cited findings in communication studies, saying that slogans are often designed to be ambiguous so people can invest their own meanings to it.

The trial continued.