Why some people disrespect the national anthem

November 07, 2017 16:32
People want to sing the national anthem with pride and passion when they identify with the nation's history and politics – but not if they don’t. Photo: YouTube

At the weekend, the National People’s Congress (NPC) gave Hong Kong legislators a big headache by inserting its national anthem law into the city's Basic Law.

This means Hong Kong has to draft legislation criminalizing any violation of the mainland statute.

If you are sitting in a restaurant and you hear March of the Volunteers on radio or television, must you get up and sing it? Can you continue eating and talking? Can you curse and point a finger at the screen?

In the mainland, everyone must stand up solemnly when the anthem is played. A person who plays or sings it "in a distorted or disrespectful way in public" can be detained for 15 days or imprisoned for three years.

Asked about its implementation in Hong Kong, local officials were, naturally, silent on the details. “The law will need to maintain the original intent and purpose of the mainland’s legislation while balancing it with the city’s common law system,” Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen said on Monday. It is a drafting problem they would rather do without.

China had two national anthems in the 20th century. On July 16, 1924, Dr. Sun Yat-sen made a speech at the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou. It became the basis of the national anthem of the Republic of China and remains so until today. It is written in classical Chinese and follows traditional poetic conventions.

On Sept. 27, 1949, the Communist Party chose March of the Volunteers as the national anthem of their new republic. It was written in vernacular, not classical, Chinese.

During the Cultural Revolution, its author, poet and playwright Tian Han, was imprisoned in 1966 and his song banned; he died in prison in 1968. It was replaced by The East is Red as China's unofficial national anthem. Tian’s song and lyrics were restored by the NPC in March 1978 and he was rehabilitated posthumously.

As in other countries, a national anthem is inseparable from history and politics. People want to sing it with energy and feeling when they identify with that history and politics – but not if they don’t.

In France, before the start of international sports games, the national anthem Le Marseillaise is played. But in soccer games against Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia between 2001 and 2008, French-born fans whose families originated from those countries booed the anthem in protest against the discrimination they face in their daily lives. They cheered the visiting team, not the one of their birth. For them, the anthem was a symbol of shame, not pride.

In 1997, in an effort to match the complex feelings of a multiracial nation, South Africa adopted a national anthem with five of the country’s 11 official languages, with different tunes and lyrics; the aim was to make everyone identify with it. The effort has paid off; now whites, blacks, and those of mixed racial ancestry sing it with passion.

This summer, dozens of black American footballers knelt during the playing of the US national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, even at the risk of suspension from the games. 

They wanted to protest the continued police violence against black people in the United States. In 2016 alone, police officers shot and killed 258 blacks, of whom 39 were unarmed. Blacks account for 35 percent of the country’s prison population but only 12 percent of the national population. So the footballers appear to have a good reason to kneel in protest during the playing of the anthem.

This matter of identity also exists in Hong Kong. Many feel strongly for the People's Republic of China and sing the anthem with fervor. But many do not – such as those who identify with Taiwan, those whose land, homes and other properties were confiscated by the government without compensation, those whose friends or family members were arrested, imprisoned or killed by its agents, and those who went to the mainland to do business but were cheated by local partners or officials and lost what they had.

There are also young people born and brought up in Hong Kong with no family connection to the mainland; they do not see it as a country with which they wish to identify.

You cannot force someone to love a country and sing its anthem. That desire must come from their heart and their experience. Win their hearts and minds – and they will want to sing the anthem. The government is putting the cart before the horse.

The pragmatic choice will be to accept this no-cost and painless demand and do what the government wants – stand up, keep a solemn expression and mouth the words, even if you do not utter them. What is in your heart will still belong to you.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.