Mr. Tong’s lawyers are expected to argue, as have many protesters, that the phrase represents a desire to reclaim Hong Kong’s unique identity from the heavy-handed influence of Beijing. The government has said the slogan represents a call for independence, and thus violates the security law.
That a political slogan could constitute a criminal offense is still a new and unsettling idea in Hong Kong, where residents had for decades enjoyed the right to protest, freedoms largely unseen in mainland China.
“We must bear in mind the context. The words he had, we need to understand that during that period those words were quite commonly spoken and exhibited on many flags and banners in peaceful and even non-peaceful protests in Hong Kong,” said Eric Cheung, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.
“The meaning of these words differ from person to person,” Mr. Cheung said. “You now say that using these words carry only that meaning which amount to intention to subvert the country, I think that is a debate.”
Even if Mr. Tong is not convicted of terrorism, he faces a separate charge of causing grievous bodily harm by dangerous driving, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in prison.
As he awaited trial, Mr. Tong was sharing a cell with 10 men, according to Shiu Ka-chun, a former lawmaker who wrote on his social media page last year that he had been visiting him regularly. Mr. Shiu declined to comment about Mr. Tong. But in his social media posts, he wrote that Mr. Tong has been reading books on history, including a memoir by Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s first democratically elected president.
“For those comrades who are continuing to take a stand, he says wait and be patient,” Mr. Shiu wrote. “For those who have left Hong Kong, he looks upon that calmly and thinks, ‘Hong Kong is in your hearts, everywhere is Hong Kong.’”