26 March 2019
A file picture shows Hong Kong football fans booing the Chinese national anthem ahead of a match between the Hong Kong and China teams in 2015. Beijing authorities have proposed a new law to curb such behavior. Photo: Reuters
A file picture shows Hong Kong football fans booing the Chinese national anthem ahead of a match between the Hong Kong and China teams in 2015. Beijing authorities have proposed a new law to curb such behavior. Photo: Reuters

Why the national anthem law is a matter of concern

For those fretting that Hong Kong is turning into a city of “rule by law”, rather than rule of law, the proposed new rules related to China’s national anthem will only mean more bad news. 

As authorities make it clear that Hong Kong will incorporate the mainland’s national anthem law, which is currently in the drafting stage, into the city’s mini-constitution, locals do have something fresh to worry about.  

On Monday, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) — the executive body of China’s legislature — finished a second reading of the draft legislation that seeks to punish any citizen who shows disrespect to the national anthem.

The law sets out “proper” ways to use the national anthem, the March of the Volunteers. Violators, including those who modify the lyrics or mock the song or play it during “inappropriate” occasions, could be detained for up to 15 days or face criminal prosecution.

According to mainland media, the NPCSC will at a meeting in October officially propose that the new law should also be included in the mini-constitutions of Hong Kong and Macau.

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has indicated that the city will indeed do that by making use of Annexe III of the Basic Law. 

While authorities justify the move on the ground that it will prevent misuse or abuse of the national anthem, the planned legislation raises several concerns.  

For one, it marks another instance of the mainland extending its laws into Hong Kong and undermining the city’s autonomy.

Then there is the question of people’s rights in relation to freedom of expression and whether they could come under threat under the new law.  

Also, who can guarantee that the law won’t be misused by authorities to crack down on opposition activists and others standing up against Beijing’s growing interference in Hong Kong affairs?

Among other things, the new law decrees that when the national anthem is played, people should stand up straight and be solemn.

Now, who will judge whether a person has been solemn enough on such occasions?  

The new law could well become another tool in the hands of the government to hound opposition activists, especially the youth who do not care much about established norms and protocols. 

Truth be told, most Hong Kong people have no special emotional feelings about singing the official anthem, be it “God Save the Queen” before 1997 or the “March of the Volunteers” after the handover.

Meanwhile, anger at Beijing’s failure to deliver electoral reforms for Hong Kong and the mainland’s hardline stance have prompted locals, especially the youth, to voice their discontent through all available means.  

In this situation, the national anthem, too, has sometimes been targeted to show people’s feelings toward the Communist authorities across the border.

In 2015, several Hong Kong football fans booed the Chinese national anthem as it was played before a match between Hong Kong and China at the Mong Kok Stadium.

The incident touched a raw nerve in China, prompting authorities to mull measures to curb such behavior.  

For Beijing, it is a loss of face especially when such protests take place in full public view, with television images beamed around the world. 

The new rules on “appropriate” behavior during the anthem are being drafted with much precision, with Beijing sending a message that disrespect to cherished national symbols won’t be tolerated.

Besides, authorities will be hoping the new guidelines can help foster a sense of national identity among Hongkongers and prompt them to consider themselves as Chinese, rather than as just Hong Kong citizens.

As debate rages over the potential implications of the new law, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has urged people not to politicize the issue.

She advised locals not to get overly sensitive about the upcoming rules, pointing out that Hong Kong already has laws related to the national flag and emblem.

The chief executive said she foresees no difficulty in incorporating the mainland law into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Well, it is absurd that Lam is suggesting that Hong Kong people should not waste time in debating the issue.

Many locals believe the proposed enforcement of the national anthem law in Hong Kong is a clear political decision aimed at forcing Hong Kong people to be loyal to Beijing authorities.

The administration, meanwhile, needs to bear one thing in mind: If people are not entirely convinced about the merits of the legislation, getting them to blindly follow the rules won’t be easy. 

Moreover, there are many practical issues when it comes to implementing the proposed new rules in relation to the national anthem.

For example, will it be unlawful if a football fan goes to the toilet before a match kick-off and then hears the national anthem being played?  

And should people sitting in a restaurant stand up and pay tribute when a TV screen shows a TVB channel airing the national anthem before a news program in the evening?

Will a student who creates new lyrics based on the music of the national anthem be deemed to have committed an offense? And can a person use the national anthem as a mobile phone ringtone?

Such practical matters apart, what is really bothering Hong Kong people is the law’s consequences in relation to freedom of expression rights.

Rao Geping, a mainland member of the Basic Law Committee, said on Tuesday that there have to be limits on freedom of speech in Hong Kong, to ensure that people’s rights don’t impinge on national interests.

He said it will be made clear soon as to what exactly will be allowed, and what will not be allowed, under the new law.

While he sought to assure that people have nothing to fear, his words do sound ominous, from the perspective of many Hongkongers.

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EJ Insight writer

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