Hong Kong localist Edward Leung tells Mong Kok riot trial he acted out of duty to protect hawkers and crowds
Student on trial with four others has admitted assaulting police but pleaded not guilty to charges of rioting and inciting others to take part during the Lunar New Year unrest in 2016
A Hong Kong localist accused of inciting others to riot in a popular shopping district told a court on Tuesday that he acted because he had a responsibility to protect the hawkers and the crowds there.
Testifying for the first time in the High Court, Edward Leung Tin-kei, 26, recounted to a jury how an evening of Lunar New Year festivities in Mong Kok – full of shoppers milling around street hawkers selling fishballs and chicken drumsticks – descended into chaos that led to police firing gun shots into the air back in February 2016.
The student, who is on trial with four other men, has admitted to assaulting police, but pleaded not guilty to charges of rioting and inciting others to take part in a riot.
He recalled arriving at Portland Street at about 9.30pm on February 8 and watching members of his group, Hong Kong Indigenous, escort hawkers to set up stalls for business, as they had done the year before. It was less than three weeks to a Legislative Council by-election in which Leung was running in the New Territories East constituency.
The festive mood was interrupted by a visit from the government’s hawker control unit, which did not take action, and by a growing police presence following a traffic accident involving a taxi and an elderly man.
But Leung recalled that the crowds soon resumed eating, chatting and taking pictures – until police returned at 11.45pm with reinforcements that included officers with shields and batons and a tall command stand.
Leung said the scene reminded him of a police clearance operation during the Occupy campaign in November 2014, during which officers stood on the stand and pepper-sprayed protesters.
“The atmosphere immediately became tense. I felt nervous too because I saw many officers advancing,” he testified.
To prevent police from advancing, Leung stood in front of the moving stand but fell after several pushes.
“Why did you feel you had a responsibility to protect the people there?” his counsel Edwin Choy asked.
“Because they were just eating,” Leung replied. “If they were treated with violence, I felt I had a responsibility to protect them.”
He then agreed to a suggestion from party colleague Ray Wong Toi-yeung to hold an election parade to separate the police from the crowds, and announced the arrangement through a megaphone, while calling police “public security” and an “urban management force”.
But the stand-off did not last as Wong suddenly called out: “Three, two, one,” which was immediately followed by crowds charging at police shields.
Leung said he was pepper-sprayed and hit on top of the head, with his glasses smashed. He ran towards Argyle Street, only to find traffic police waving their batons at protesters.
“I felt angry,” he said. He saw protesters pressed to the ground and attacked a police officer.
He then heard two loud “bangs” from gun shots and a woman screaming as a police officer held her neck while waving a baton. He shouted for her release, but was pushed to the ground and arrested.
Leung also told the court how he first developed an interest in current affairs following the first July 1 march in 2003 as his parents spoke enthusiastically of the protest’s background and meaning.
He went on to join the annual July 1 march and June 4 vigil – in memory of the 1989 Tiananmen protests – as well as public assemblies outside Legco.
His participation, supported by his parents who only warned him not to go on the front line, made him feel that he was part of “a force propelling society’s advancement”. But he also recalled returning home with disappointment when his actions did not bring real change.
“Though I was not born in Hong Kong, this place has shaped my values so I came to develop strong feelings for Hong Kong,” the Wuhan-born Leung testified.
“I started asking myself some questions. What do we have to do for the government to listen to the demands of the people? What do we have to do to avoid returning home with disappointment? These questions led me to study politics.”
But as he studied at the University of Hong Kong, the city was engulfed in a wider political debate on universal suffrage that eventually led to the 79-day Occupy protests, during which Leung witnessed a student with a bloodied face being called “rubbish” and “scum” by the police during a crackdown.
“It formed a deep impression. Obviously in the end nothing had changed. I wondered what I could do for Hong Kong to become a democracy,” he said.
The trial continues before Madam Justice Anthea Pang Po-kam.