Hong Kong and the United States are embroiled in a deepening controversy over national anthems. In both instances, the issue is not the anthem itself but freedom of expression, particularly the right to protest.
In the US, NFL players kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial discrimination. The controversy has spread to other sports and other athletes and has entangled the White House which insists that players who disrespect the national anthem should be fired.
Hong Kong has had a few brushes with national anthem protests. The latest came on Friday during a football friendly between Hong Kong and Laos. A group of Hong Kong fans booed the Chinese national anthem to protest developments under Chinese rule in the past 20 years.
Some of them displayed a poster saying “Hong Kong is not China” and “Boo” during the national anthem.
Some political analysts said Beijing’s recent legislation of a national anthem law was mainly prompted by Hong Kong football fans’ “misbehavior”.
From Beijing’s perspective, disrespecting the national anthem is a criminal offense that could lead to penalties for offenders including incarceration.
The Hong Kong government will also follow Beijing’s direction by legislating a local version of the law. However, the government has not given a timetable for such legislation.
Pending a local law, it could still be legal for football fans to boo the national anthem. But some pro-Beijing loyalists are threatening unruly fans that they could be banned from future matches.
On Monday, pro-Beijing legislator Priscilla Leung said those who disturb sporting events should be held responsible rather than the organisers. She said troublemakers should be identified and prohibited from attending upcoming matches.
“People who have committed the act seem to be able to repeat the behavior without any kind of penalty. If the government can design a policy that can stop them disturbing sports events by booing the national anthem, I think that would be an alternative,” Leung said.
The Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) is expected to be fined by world football’s governing body FIFA due to the fans’ behavior. The HKFA is concerned that if the booing continues, future matches may have to be played behind closed doors.
Some Beijing legal experts have urged the government to name and shame the people who were involved in Friday’s incident and punish them.
The problem with legislating a national anthem law in Hong Kong is that people will interpret it as an attack on their freedom of expression and further exacerbate discontent and divisions in society.
Hong Kong youths already feel alienated and refuse to accept their Chinese national identity, not to mention that they have also lost confidence in Beijing.
A survey by the Public Opinion Program of the University of Hong Kong showed that only 3.1 percent of respondents between 18 and 29 recognize their Chinese nationality, the lowest in the five years, compared with more than 30 percent for the over-30 age group.
Such outcome is not surprising given that Beijing and Hong Kong have been suppressing their voices in fighting for democracy and a just society, especially after the 2014 Occupy Central campaign.
The proposed national anthem legislation may change the legal basis of Hong Kong law from the British mechanism.
The measure requires people to perform the national anthem accordingly and to show respect. Any show of protest for personal or political reasons is not allowed.
It forces people to express their political loyalty to the Communist Party or they may be labelled as enemies.
At present, no one would care how people behave during the national anthem but after the new law goes into effect, people need to be careful.
From that day on, Honf Kong people would have to show their loyalty to Beijing and curb all displays of political expression not consistent with the new regime.
Beijing and its eyes and ears in Hong Kong will be watching.
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