When politics transcend sports

June 12, 2015 15:16
Hong Kong fans sit behind a breast-beating slogan during the side's 7-0 win over Bhutan in their World Cup qualifier Thursday. Photos: http://football.fanpiece.com/

Did a group of Hong Kong fans go over the line when they booed the Chinese national anthem during a football match?

The answer is yes, judging by the fierce reaction on China's social media.

Mainland netizens are calling Hongkongers traitors and British lap dogs, among other choice words.

Whether or not they are justified to blame the whole of Hong Kong for the actions of several thousand football fans is not nearly as controversial as what prompted the behavior.

Apparently, the booing was spontaneous, with about 6,000 Hongkongers rising in unison and mocking the national anthem for its duration.

The incident happened on Thursday when the Hong Kong side was introduced for its World Cup qualifier against Bhutan.

This is worth noting because Hong Kong hosts China in November after playing the mainland side in Beijing in September.

Perhaps no one expects another embarrassment to China but it could happen because this is not remotely about sports, where such provocative displays are frowned upon, but about worsening cross-border relations.

When was the last time Hong Kong people were patriotic?

They might have been at midnight on June 30, 1997 when they passed into Chinese sovereignty with their best hopes for "one country, two systems" intact.

But in the years since that historic night, Hong Kong has seen what it's like to be under a Chinese sovereign.

Surveys have shown they want to forge their own identity, sometimes using an awkward combination of names, calling themselves anything but Chinese.

It's hard for them to relate to a national symbol, let alone embrace it, without a doubt.

When a group of students burned copies of the Basic Law during the June 4 vigil for Tiananmen victims in Victoria Park, they were sending a signal not only to the Hong Kong government but also to Beijing under whose auspices the mini constitution was written.

The reaction was limited to Hong Kong.

Some observers said the symbolic burning was inspired by a new mindset about Hong Kong people looking after themselves, not relying on China's promises.

The booing incident might have been an extension of that thinking, or it might have been an isolated one, but the fallout speaks for itself.

It threatens to exacerbate strained cross-border ties already at a tipping point over issues such as democracy, immigration, tourism, property and education.

This people-to-people antagonism is playing out alongside a bruising political conflict over the selection of Hong Kong's next leader whom Beijing insists should be a patriot.

Earlier this week, the Rev. Peter Kwong, a retired Anglican archbishop, said Hong Kong people should drop their fixation with "two systems" and recognize that they have one country.

He called for a national education curriculum to teach Chinese patriotism in schools and promote a sense of belonging.

It's a sensitive issue for Hong Kong people who fear communist indoctrination of their children.

That makes them even more distrustful of Beijing and distant to anything that represents it.

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EJ Insight writer