18 April 2019
Football fans boo and turn their backs while the Chinese national anthem is being played before the start of an Asian Cup qualifier match in Hong Kong earlier this month. Photo: Reuters
Football fans boo and turn their backs while the Chinese national anthem is being played before the start of an Asian Cup qualifier match in Hong Kong earlier this month. Photo: Reuters

National anthem legislation: what the opposition could do

The National People’s Congress this week passed a law that makes booing or disrespecting the national anthem a crime punishable by imprisonment, and the Hong Kong government is expected to kick-start the process for a similar legislation in accordance with the Basic Law.

Given the political nature of the legislation, the SAR government will be well-advised to skip the public consultation and move for its approval by the Legislative Council.

There’s no need to waste everyone’s time trying to discuss the details of the proposed law when central authorities can interpret the law anytime to suit their desire.

The Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen on Wednesday said Hong Kong has the constitutional obligation to follow up on the NPC’s move by enacting a similar law on the national anthem.

He said the government will consult Legco and the public on the law that will make disrespecting the national anthem a criminal offense. The bill will be brought to the legislature “as soon as possible”.

The Chinese legislation is a clear signal that the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping wants to tighten its grip on society by emphasizing ideology and patriotism.

Thus, it is deemed vital for its governance to require the people to show their allegiance to the country and the party. Showing respect to the national anthem, March of the Volunteers, is one way of manifesting that allegiance.

What is raising concern in Hong Kong is that the punishment for the offense in the Chinese law has been raised to three years’ imprisonment, from the previous proposal of 15 days.

This punishment applies only to the mainland. Hong Kong, which is supposed to have a different legal system, should set its own punishment for violations of the law.

Still, the Chinese legislation shows how serious the central authorities regard any violation of the law, and it will surely have an influence on those drafting the Hong Kong version of the law.

Undoubtedly, mainland officials have been deeply offended by several instances when young football fans booed while the Chinese national anthem was being played during international football matches in Hong Kong. 

In fact, the Hong Kong Football Association, under pressure from the world football governing body FIFA, has been urging fans to refrain from such disrespectful behavior and has tried in vain to prevent such instances from recurring.

But as far as Beijing is concerned, such behavior is not only disrespectful to the national symbol but a manifestation of a rebellious attitude that cannot be tolerated.

On Tuesday, Zhang Rongshun, the deputy director of the NPC Standing Committee’s Legislative Affairs Commission, said enacting a law on the national anthem in Hong Kong is urgent because acts of disrespect have challenged social morality and the bottom line of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.

It’s “urgent and important” to enact such a law in the SAR to prevent and handle offenses which trigger rage among the Chinese people, “including most Hong Kong residents”, Zhang was quoted as saying in a People’s Daily report.

From the authorities’ perspective, everyone under China’s sovereignty has the responsibility and obligation to respect the symbols of the nation, including the flag and the national anthem.

Since the 1997 handover, several activists have been punished by the court for acts deemed insulting to the national flag. Activist Koo Sze Yiu was sentenced to nine months in jail for insulting the national flag during a July 1 protest in 2012.

In fact, local Beijing loyalists want the national anthem law to be made retroactive, meaning the government could take action against anyone who had insulted the anthem before the law was passed.

But retroactivity runs counter to Hong Kong’s legal framework and its inclusion in the law will create a very dangerous precedent.

However, Ip Kwok-him, a non-official member of the Executive Council, assured the public that the proposed legislation for Hong Kong will not provide for retroactive application.

The opposition camp expressed their concern over the proposal and urged the government to conduct a three-month public consultation.

Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang said the mere thought of having such a legislation enacted in Hong Kong is making some people nervous.

“I think it is very important to have a public consultation on the issue because it gives rise to a host of enforcement issues. How do police actually go and enforce the law? What conduct will be considered as disrespectful to the national anthem?

“The law must be very clear in telling people what they can and cannot do in respect of the national anthem,” Kwok said.

As the pro-establishment camp enjoys a majority in the legislature at the moment, after six legislators from the pro-democracy camp lost their seats, it could be quite difficult for the opposition to stop the law at this stage.

What the opposition could do is shift the arena of struggle to the streets, educate the public on the implications of the legislation, and press for lighter punishment for violators, rather than waste their time trying to win over officials and pro-establishment legislators.

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