A mainland Chinese farmer has been jailed for three weeks after setting fire to a Chinese flag in Hong Kong, officials said yesterday, raising questions over freedom of speech in the territory.
The sentence passed on Zhu Rongchang (朱榮昌), 74, from Jiangxi Province, is the first prison term of its kind in the territory.
It came after he pleaded not guilty to flag desecration, arguing that he was exercising his right to free speech.
“The court agrees that freedom of speech is a universal value that is respected and pursued by all people, but every freedom is restricted in some way. No freedom comes without restrictions. I can appreciate the defendant’s trail of thoughts, but his way of expression breached the Hong Kong laws and therefore he is guilty,” Magistrate Jason Wan (溫紹明) was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post, as he handed down the judgement on Monday.
Zhu was charged for “publicly and willfully” burning the Chinese flag at Golden Bauhinia Square in central Hong Kong, a popular tourist attraction, during the July 22 incident, a court spokeswoman said.
He reportedly lowered the flag from its pole and lit it with a cigarette lighter, in a protest that his lawyer said was aimed at criticizing “authoritarian rule” in China.
“He is unhappy that there are no human rights,” counsel Newman Lam was quoted as saying by the Post.
The 74-year-old is reportedly the third person charged under legislation which makes desecrating the Chinese national flag an offense punishable by up to three years imprisonment, a law passed hours after the territory’s 1997 handover.
However, Zhu was reportedly the first to be jailed under the law. In the earlier cases involving two protesters who defaced a home-made national flag at a 1998 demonstration, the court handed out non-custodial sentences requiring lawful conduct for one year.
The activists reportedly cut a hole in the middle, inked out the stars and wrote the Chinese character for “shame” on it.