Last November, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress inserted a law against insulting the national anthem into Hong Kong’s Basic Law. This followed the passing of a similar law applying on the mainland.
In order to take effect locally, the Hong Kong legislative council must pass legislation here. This is likely to generate some controversy for two main reasons.
The first is that such a law seems strange or unusual to many people in Hong Kong, even though laws of this sort are found elsewhere in the world. The second is a fear that this legislation will threaten freedom of expression or be used against people who accidentally break it.
Most of us in Hong Kong were not brought up to do things like stand for a national anthem. The British colonial system did not really encourage any kind of patriotic displays or even awareness among local residents. Most local schools did not even teach much modern Chinese history, let alone have flag-raising ceremonies.
Overseas, it varies, but in some places things are different. In the United States, it is usual in many grade schools for all students to stand for the pledge of allegiance every morning before class, and the national anthem is played at many sporting events. If you go to a public function in Thailand – even to watch a movie – you will be expected to stand for the anthem.
In some places, the law specifically requires people to behave with respect during the national anthem or towards the flag. A quick check shows that these include countries from Thailand to India to the Philippines to Turkey to Mexico.
In other countries, lack of respect – or perceived lack of respect – for the anthem is not illegal, but can be extremely controversial. In Japan, with its history of militarism, some people have very strong feelings for or against patriotism and nationalism. In the United States, football players who kneel as a protest against police behavior provoke similar conflicting reactions.
The central people’s government in Beijing has decided that a national law concerning the anthem should apply in Hong Kong. This is not all that surprising – it is in line with the laws on the national flag and emblem, which are mentioned in Annex III of the Basic Law and are reflected in a local ordinance. Since that law does not seem to create any issues, there is no reason why one on the anthem should be any different.
That brings us to the question of how the law will be implemented and enforced – and particularly whether people could accidentally break the law and get into trouble.
When the idea of a law on the national anthem first came up last year, skeptics responded with what we might call the “noodles question”. What if the anthem is played on TV in a restaurant while people are eating – are they breaking the law if they don’t stand? (Another example is what if someone is in a wheelchair and cannot stand?)
Although these questions might seem absurd, officials should take this sort of objection seriously. Critics could easily use misunderstandings to spread alarm when the community and lawmakers debate the new law.
It is important that people realize that an anthem law is not aimed at people who might hear the national anthem in the background, or who are unable to stand. The details need to be worked out, but if the law is to be credible, it will only be used against anyone who deliberately disrespects or mocks the national anthem.
Some commentators have raised fears about an anthem law affecting freedom of expression. The precedent of the law about the national flag should be reassuring. If you look around, you see lots of instances where creative people – cartoonists, for example – use the flag in their work. I have not heard of anyone suggesting that this law prevents artistic expression or things like design creativity.
The new law does not need to be controversial. Provided officials draft the legislation clearly, and lawmakers and the public discuss it openly and rationally, it will become accepted and appreciated as a guide to an important part of citizens’ behavior.
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