Hong Kong unveils bill making mocking of China's anthem a crime

Critics say proposal that includes jail terms of up to three years and hefty fines raises fears over freedom of speech.

    Hong Kong has introduced a controversial bill to legislators that makes mocking the Chinese national anthem a criminal offence, with punishments of hefty fines and up to three years in jail.

    The proposal, which was tabled in Hong Kong's legislative council on Wednesday, has angered critics in the global financial hub who fear the measure could be used to undermine freedom of expression in the city.

    China's Communist Party leaders have striven to instil greater patriotism in the former British colony at a time of heightened tension between democracy activists and forces loyal to Beijing, with some in Hong Kong even advocating independence from China.

    The anthem proposal is expected to pass easily when it comes to a vote - expected to take place around mid-2019 - as the opposition does not have enough seats to block routine legislation.

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    Besides imprisonment, the measure would prescribe a maximum fine of 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,373) for those who publicly and intentionally disrespect the anthem, the March of the Volunteers.

    It also extends to schoolchildren, including pupils of international schools, who would be legally required to learn the song.

    "I think teachers would feel worried about this proposal, because if we allow this government to pass a law to instruct the teachers what to teach, well, this time it is for the national anthem, maybe next time it could be other things," Simon Hung, a 36-year-old secondary school teacher, told Reuters news agency.

    Football protest

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    Booing the anthem at football matches in the Chinese-ruled territory has emerged as a form of political protest in recent years, seized upon by young people eager demonstrate their frustration at Beijing's perceived creeping influence.

    "I don't think we are disrespecting the country, because if the government or the country aren't some kind of representation of us, how can booing the national anthem be disrespectful? It's not representative of our voice," student Kin Wa Chung, one of the people booing at football matches,  told Al Jazeera in 2017.

    Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a so-called "one country, two systems" formula that promises the city a high degree of autonomy, including freedom of expression.

    Calls for outright independence are a red line for China's Communist Party leaders, who deem Hong Kong an inalienable part of the nation.

    But many young people in Hong Kong have become increasingly angered by what they see as China's encroachment of the city's culture and autonomy, with some advocating "localism", or a Hong Kong identity, rather than a Chinese one.

    "We have no sense of belonging to China at all," one football supporter told Reuters. "Even people I know who are born since 1997, they still think they are Hong Kongers, but not Chinese."

    Hong Kong has already outlawed the desecration of national flags and emblems, which can attract jail terms of three years.

    In 2017, mainland China adopted a law banning disrespect for the anthem. A similar measure is being reviewed in Macau, also designated a Chinese special administrative region.

    Opponents and press freedom advocates in the world's largest gambling hub have criticised a provision for authorities to seek media assistance in anthem promotion campaigns.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies