Was Malcolm X, the famed Black leader of the US civil rights movement, a separatist?
That’s a question that Hong Kong government prosecutors asked, and answered in the affirmative, on day 12 of the city’s first national security trial. The exchange was reported in detail by Holmes Chan, a freelance journalist who has been covering the trial extensively for the local digital outlet, Stand News.
That the legacy of a 20th century American civil rights activist was briefly debated in a Hong Kong courtroom, in a landmark trial that can set important legal precedents and influence the trajectory of Beijing’s authoritarian crackdown, speaks to the nature of social movements—and political legacies—as fluid phenomenons that cut across time and space.
The first trial under Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law began on June 22. The defendant, 24-year-old Tong Ying-kit, is charged with terrorism and inciting secession—both vaguely defined crimes under the security law, punishable by up to life imprisonment—after he collided into a group of police officers while riding a motorcycle last July, the first full month the law was implemented. Separately, he’s also charged with dangerous driving.
Tong has pleaded not guilty to all three charges.
The incitement to secession charge rests on seven words: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” That’s the protest slogan that was emblazoned on a flag flying from Tong’s motorcycle on the day in question. Both the defense and prosecution have spent days wrangling over the linguistics of that phrase.
Prosecutors argue that the slogan is clearly secessionist because calling for Hong Kong’s liberation requires something for Hong Kong to be liberated “from.” Therefore, they argue, it’s essentially a call to retake the city from an enemy—supposedly Beijing—and to overthrow the Chinese government. The defense argues that the slogan can be interpreted in numerous ways by different people at different times, depending on the context in which it’s used.
Then there’s the the defendant’s perception of the slogan to consider—for example, did he fly the flag to explicitly call for Hong Kong’s secession from China?
“The ballot or the bullet”
So where does Malcolm X fit into all this?
On an earlier day of the trial, the prosecution had deliberated on the political beliefs of jailed activist and former philsophy student Edward Leung, who had coined the “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” slogan in 2016 during his bid for a seat in the city’s legislature. The prosecution’s expert witness Lau Chi-pang, a history professor, argued that Leung called on Hong Kongers to ”build a nation” (link in Chinese) for themselves, implicitly making Leung—and the slogan he coined—secessionist.
Leung came up again as a point of discussion in court this week, as both sides continued to wrangle over whether using the protest slogan amounted to inciting secession.
To bolster its case the prosecution referred to a 2016 campaign speech by Leung, according to Stand News. In it, Leung cited Malcolm X’s 1964 “The Ballot or the Bullet” (pdf) speech, saying (link in Chinese) “the vote is a bullet, that’s what Malcolm X said.” Lau, the prosecution’s expert witness, argued that Leung was portraying the ballot box as a weapon with which to overthrow the government, making him a secessionist—just like Malcolm X was a member of the Black nationalist and Black separatist organization Nation of Islam, argued the lead prosecutor.
It’s imprecise and misleading at best to characterize Malcolm X as a secessionist, as the prosecution appeared to be trying to do. For one, though the rights activist argued for racial separatism—the idea that Black people should organize themselves and build parallel institutions—he was by no means arguing for a separate, sovereign state. In addition, scholars argue that Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” philosophy of protest was not a carte blanche for violent protest, but rather a belief that Black people have a right to defend themselves and that it’s hypocritical to preach non-violence when Blacks themselves are suffering state violence.
It’s also inaccurate to imply that Leung, the jailed activist, was only channeling the ideas of Malcolm X by selectively quoting a single campaign speech. In a 2016 radio interview (link in Chinese), for example, Leung argued that forceful and peaceful resistance can play complementary roles in a social movement, invoking Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as representing the two different styles of resistance in the US civil rights movement. In that 2016 interview, Leung also advocated for protesters to use a level of force that’s equal to that of the police. It’s an idea that evokes another line in Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech: “I’m non-violent with those who are non-violent with me.”
In court, the lead prosecutor continued to make the case (link in Chinese) that Malcolm X was a separatist who was a one-time member of a radical Muslim organization, the Nation of Islam. Exasperated, the defense’s expert witness, politics professor Eliza Lee, said that it would be a gargantuan task to properly discuss the complex history of American racial segregation, Black nationalism, and African-Americans’ conception of separatism at the time of apartheid.
The judge soon cut off further discussion on Malcolm X’s legacy on the basis that it was “far, far removed” from the substance of the court case.
Not quite. Last year, jailed activist Joshua Wong also turned to the phrase “ballot or bullet” in his 2020 legislative campaign. That the words of Malcolm X echo with some Hong Kongers today is a reminder that political movements that may seem “far, far removed” have long drawn on one another for inspiration across geography and decades.
That includes Hong Kong democracy activists drawing on the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the 1960s civil rights movement drawing on the spirit of noncooperation in the Indian independence movement in the 1930s, which in turn was inspired by American thinker Henry David Thoreau, who argued that citizens must resist a government committing violence on its own people in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.
In recent months, Hong Kongers have also found inspiration in the works of Czech writer and former president Václav Havel, whose book The Power of the Powerless and the idea of “living in truth” has been prominently cited (link in Chinese) by activists including Nathan Law. Local bookstores have also stocked his books, and hosted events discussing Havel’s works.