Hong Kong’s legislature has approved a contentious bill that makes it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem, a move critics see as the latest sign of Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.
The bill was approved on Thursday with 41 in favour and one against.
The move came as people in Hong Kong were set to light candles across the city to commemorate the 1989 crackdown by Chinese troops in and around Tiananmen Square.
At the start of Thursday’s legislative session, pro-democracy legislators stood in silence to mark the anniversary and put up signs on their desks that said: “Do not forget June 4, the hearts of the people will not die”.
Then, as the debate progressed, they tried multiple times to halt the proceedings.
Raising a sign that said “A murderous regime stinks for ten thousand years,” legislator Ray Chan walked to the front with the pot hidden inside a Chinese paper lantern. When security guards tried to stop him, he dropped the lantern and the pot, and was ejected from the meeting. Another politician who accompanied him was also ejected.
The chamber was evacuated and police and firemen were called in to investigate the incident.
When the meeting resumed, pro-democracy legislator Ted Hui again splashed some liquid at the front of the meeting room and was escorted out. Legislative Council President Andrew Leung called such behaviour irresponsible and childish, before calling for the vote.
Critics of the anthem bill see it as an infringement of the right to free expression that residents of the semi-autonomous city enjoy, but the pro-Beijing majority say the law is necessary for Hong Kong citizens to show appropriate respect for the anthem.
Those found guilty of intentionally abusing the March of the Volunteers face up to three years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars ($6,450).
The contentious debate over the bill came after China’s ceremonial national legislature formally approved a decision last week to enact a national security law for Hong Kong that could see Chinese security agents posted in the city.
The national security law is aimed at curbing subversive activity, with Beijing pushing for it after a months-long pro-democracy protest movement that at times saw violent clashes between police and protesters.
Opponents of the anthem bill and the national security law see them as signs of Beijing’s tightening control over the territory.
Beijing began pushing for the anthem law after Hong Kong soccer fans jeered the national anthem at international matches in 2015. As anti-government protests engulfed Hong Kong last year, thousands of fans booed loudly and turned their backs when the anthem was played at a World Cup qualifier match against Iran in September. FIFA later fined the Hong Kong Football Association over the incident.
As the anthem bill passed Hong Kong’s legislature, students at the Hong Kong university held a moment of silence at the Pillar of Shame, a sculpture commemorating the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown 31 years ago.
Open discussion of the brutal crackdown is forbidden in mainland China where hundreds – by some estimates more than a thousand – died when the Communist Party sent tanks into Beijing’s main square on June 4, 1989, to crush a student-led demonstration calling for democratic reforms.
Hong Kongers have kept memories alive for the past three decades by holding a huge annual vigil, the only part of China where such a mass display of remembrance is possible.
But this year’s service was banned on public health grounds because of the coronavirus pandemic with barricades surrounding Victoria Park, the traditional ceremony venue, and police patrolling nearby.
Organisers have called for residents to instead light candles of remembrance at 8pm (12:00 GMT) wherever they are.
“The Hong Kong vigil has been a beacon of light for those of us struggling in darkness to keep the history and memory (of Tiananmen) alive,” Rowena He, an associate professor in history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China told Al Jazeera.
“It shows the world and the regime that there’s something that cannot be crushed with tanks and guns and jail, and that’s the human spirit.”