Hong Kong police have arrested a man for allegedly displaying a British colonial flag and inciting others to boo China’s national anthem after a fencer won the city’s first Olympic gold in 25 years.
The alleged booing happened at a shopping mall as fans gathered to watch the live broadcast of the Olympic award ceremony following local athlete Cheung Ka-long’s win in men’s foil fencing on Monday. The crowd also chanted “We are Hong Kong” while the anthem rang, as if to drown out the song.
Police said after receiving reports from citizens, they conducted an investigation and arrested a 40-year-old man who allegedly displayed a British colonial flag at the scene. When the man was arrested on Friday afternoon, he had 10 colonial flags in his bag, Senior Superintendent Chung Lai-yee said at a press briefing on Friday.
“Someone was openly, deliberately raising a Hong Kong colonial flag,” Chung said, “and even inciting people at the scene to boo and chant some slogans, which constituted insulting the national anthem. The aim was to incite hatred among the crowd, and politicize the sports event.”
Police said the man’s act of disrespecting the national anthem, instead of carrying the colonial flag, was the main reason for the arrest. If convicted of insulting the national anthem, he will face up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of HK$50,000 ($6,400).
A former British colony, Hong Kong continued to compete in international sports competitions separately from China’s team after it was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997. The city is represented by its Bauhinia flag and the Chinese national anthem.
The Tokyo games have become the single best Olympics for Hong Kong as athletes have bagged one gold medal and two silvers. The event has offered Hong Kongers a rare opportunity to celebrate their local identity, at a time when Beijing is tightening its grip on the city and cracking down on its pro-democracy movement, actions seen as eroding the distinction between the city and the mainland.
On the internet, some users edited the video of the foil fencing award ceremony to replace the Chinese national anthem with a protest song that became a symbol of the 2019 anti-government unrest.
Some activists have been waving the British colonial flag at pro-democracy protests to express their discontent toward Beijing’s control of Hong Kong.
Booing the national anthem at sports events also used to be a popular protest gesture. But it has been prohibited since a law on respecting the national anthem was enacted in June 2020.
The same month, a powerful national security law imposed by Beijing also went into effect. The law, which criminalized acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, has led to the arrests of activists and the shutdown of a pro-democracy newspaper.
Police said they would continue investigating the case to determine if the arrested man was also suspected of violating other laws, including the national security law.
On Friday, the first person charged under the national security law was sentenced to nine years in jail. He was found guilty of inciting secession and committing terrorist activities for driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers last year while flying a flag that carried the popular anti-government slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.”
Police were also reportedly monitoring the crowd watching the women’s 100m freestyle race on Friday. No Chinese national anthem was played since Hong Kong swimmer Siobhan Haughey won a silver, becoming the city’s first double-medalist.
This story has been updated with information about an arrest made in connection to the case.