Hong Kong: Why China’s national anthem bill is so controversial

If passed into law by Hong Kong’s legislature, the bill will make ‘disrespect’ of the Chinese national anthem a crime.

Hong Kong
Pro-democracy protesters gather on May 24, 2020 ahead of planned protests against a proposal to enact new security legislation in Hong Kong [Isaac Lawrence/ AFP]

Hong Kong’s legislature is moving forward on a controversial bill that would criminalise “abuse” of China’s national anthem.

A second reading of the bill is being held in the legislature on Wednesday, with protests expected. Security has been tightened in the area around the Legislative Council building with riot police deployed and barricades erected. 

What is it?

If passed into law by the legislature, Hong Kong’s National Anthem Bill will govern the use and playing of the Chinese national anthem.

This includes provisions that threaten to punish those who “insult” the anthem with up to three years jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450).

The bill states that “all individuals and organisations” should respect and dignify the national anthem and play it and sing it on “appropriate occasions”.

It also orders that primary and secondary school students be taught to sing the anthem, along with its history and etiquette. 

Why is it controversial?

Anti-government protests last year were primarily aimed at resisting further integration with mainland China. The Chinese national anthem has been booed at several events, including football matches.

Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say the bill represents the latest sign of what they see as accelerating interference from Beijing in the former British colony.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that the city’s core freedoms and way of life would be protected under a “one country, two systems” formula, which Beijing says it respects.

Freedoms of speech, press, association and assembly are explicitly written into the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that guides Hong Kong’s relationship with the central government in Beijing – freedoms that opponents of the bill now say are under threat.

More technically, some senior lawyers fear the bill is highly unusual in that it, in part, reflects the ideological aspirations of China’s Communist Party. That could make it difficult to enforce.

“It is the first Hong Kong law I’ve seen that looks like it was written in Beijing,” one senior judge told Reuters, speaking privately. “It will be a nightmare to rule on.”

The Hong Kong Bar Association has acknowledged the need for such laws but said parts of the bill “deviate from the good traditions” of Hong Kong’s common law system.

It said there was a fundamental difference between that system and the “socialist legal system of mainland China which would include political ideology and conceptual guidance”.

Where did it come from?

For years, Chinese officials and their pro-Beijing allies in Hong Kong have wanted to instil a greater sense of Chinese patriotic pride across the city.

Hong Kong’s government says the bill reflects the city’s own legal system and situation.

“The main spirit of the … bill is ‘respect’, which bears absolutely no relations to ‘restricting freedom of speech’ as claimed by certain members of the community and definitely not a so-called ‘evil law’,” a spokesman said earlier this year.

What’s next?

Further protests and intense legislative infighting over the bill are widely expected.

The government, under pressure from Beijing, says it is now a priority to pass the bill into law before the end of this four-year legislative term in July.

Having been mired in a log-jam of legislative procedural battles, the bill could face a third reading after Wednesday’s proceedings, and possibly a vote early next month.

If it misses the deadline, the government would then have to decide whether to re-introduce the bill in the next session or force it into law by promulgation, seen as a highly unusual and potentially explosive option. Deeper public consultation and a redraft would be the alternative.

Longer-term, if the bill becomes law and is enforced, constitutional challenges can be expected in courts – both into the bill’s content and the procedural battles through which it passed.

Source: Reuters