The Hong Kong city skyline. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE
The Hong Kong city skyline. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE

Hong Kong jailed a former food delivery worker for five years and nine months for chanting a banned protest slogan, as authorities use a Beijing-drafted national security law to set stark new limits on speech. 

Ma Chun-man, 31, known locally as Captain America 2.0 for the Marvel character he would sometimes be dressed as while protesting, faced as many as seven years in prison for incitement to secession. The District Court ruled last month that his use of slogans, including “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”, violated the vaguely worded security law. He had pleaded not guilty.  

Judge Stanley Chan had been scheduled to hand down the sentence earlier on Thursday, but pushed back the hearing until the afternoon, saying its high-profile nature meant the court needed more time.  

“Whether or not there’s any violence used, attack on law and order officers or response to the defendant’s call is not critical, given he has the intention and has performed the action to incite others to secession,” Chan said on Thursday, handing down the sentence.

The sentence for Ma’s non-violent offence is on par with some of the longest verdicts handed down for rioting during the mass antigovernment unrest of 2019. A man who joined a stick-wielding mob that attacked protesters and commuters in one suburb was sentenced in July to seven years in prison, while a construction worker who participated in an airport riot where he assaulted a mainland Chinese journalist was jailed in January for 5.5 years.

Both national security trials have centred on defendants’ use of political slogans, adding to fears that freedom of speech is being eroded in the former British colony despite being guaranteed in the security law and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Speech-related crimes account for 85% of the 100 cases the government has sought to prosecute under the law, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. 

“It is outrageous that Ma Chun-man has been sentenced to more than five years in prison simply for chanting slogans and sharing his political views online,” said Amnesty International, the global rights group that closed an office in the city last month due to the security law. “The Hong Kong government must stop criminalising mere acts of expression without any demonstrated connection to the use of force or imminent violence.”

Three defendants so far have pleaded guilty to avoid fighting their cases under the law that was imposed on the city by China in June 2020.

During Ma’s four-day trial, prosecutors said he had flouted the security law by claiming calling for Hong Kong independence was his constitutional right, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported. It was irrelevant whether the people who said or heard the banned words intended to carry out secession, the court ruled in a summary published after the conviction.

Despite the “liberate” slogan being shouted and displayed on flags by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of protesters in the city in recent years, it has been effectively banned under the national security law. 

In July a waiter was sentenced to nine years in jail under the legislation for driving a motorcycle into police officers while carrying a flag bearing the slogan, injuring three.

Hong Kong’s leader, CEO Carrie Lam, has credited the law for bringing stability to the Asian financial hub, but it has been criticised by Western governments for rolling back freedoms promised under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. That Beijing-signed document guaranteed the former British colony a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years, after it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The US has sanctioned top Chinese officials overseeing the territory regarding the law, and the Biden administration in July issued an advisory warning to American companies operating in the city of a “new legal landscape” that could “adversely affect” operations.

Ma said he had “no regrets” for his actions, in a statement released via his lawyer before his sentence was delivered on Thursday.

“I promise there won’t be any cowardice on my journey to fight for democracy and justice,” he said. “I’ll try my best and use my life’s effort to fight for the dream that I believe in. Glory to Hong Kong.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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