In another sign of Beijing’s increasing squeeze on Hongkongers’ civil liberties, Hong Kong lawmakers are now debating a bill that would punish people who diss the Chinese national anthem — with jail terms of up to three years.
The legislation, aimed at curbing public displays of anti-Chinese sentiment in the semi-autonomous city-state, has renewed concerns about shrinking freedom of expression in Hong Kong. In recent years, Beijing has been crimping civil liberties in the former British colony of 7.4 million people, which is governed under a “one country, two systems” policy that grants Hongkongers greater civil liberties — including the right to freedom of expression — than on the Mainland.
The bill, which is expected to pass, would also set a maximum fine of HK$50,000 ($6,370) for those who “insult” the Chinese anthem. It would also require schoolchildren to be taught the anthem, titled “March of the Volunteers.”
The move follows outrage on the Mainland at reports of Hong Kong soccer fans booing the Chinese anthem as it played at matches in recent years, as a form of protest at Beijing’s increasing encroachment on Hong Kong.
China’s national legislature passed a law on the Mainland banning disrespect for the anthem in 2017, and added it to an annex of Hong Kong's de facto constitution, obliging the city-state’s government, the Legislative Council, to introduce equivalent legislation.
As lawmakers read the bill Wednesday, rival groups of pro-Beijing and pro-democracy activists taunted each other outside the Legislative Council. Student activist Joshua Wong, who was a prominent figure in 2014 pro-democracy protests in the city, led a flash mob outside the legislature that unfurled a banner reading “Freedom not to sing praises.”
Ivan Lam Long-yin, chairman of the pro-democracy Demosisto party, said his group was opposed to the bill because it “would curtail the freedom of expression and have the city coercing citizens into expressing loyalty to the regime.”
He called on the government to withdraw the bill and launch a public consultation.
The Labour Party’s Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said respect for the anthem could “only be earned from citizens, not coerced through a bill which would curtail freedoms.”
The bill was also met with signs of opposition within the legislature, with some lawmakers holding placards reading: “Against anthem law. Safeguard freedom of speech.” Nevertheless, the bill is expected to pass by July, as the opposition lacks the seats to block the legislation.
Beijing’s clampdown on the so-called special administrative region in recent years have included expelling democratically-elected lawmakers from the Legislative Council, refusing others to stand for election, and heavy-handed prosecutions of pro-democracy activists. Concerns have also grown over increasing self-censorship by the media in the city-state to respect the invisible red lines drawn by Beijing.
Cover: In this Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, file photo, Hong Kong soccer fans boo the Chinese national anthem before the AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualification soccer match Lebanon against Hong Kong, in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)