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Explainer: Why is a new law in Hong Kong about the Chinese national anthem so controversial?

The law was approved by Hong Kong legislators on Thursday.

Participants at a vigil in Hong Kong on Thursday held for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.
Participants at a vigil in Hong Kong on Thursday held for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

HONG KONG HAS been embroiled in protest and political unrest over the past year as concerns about democracy come to the forefront. 

On Thursday, Hong Kong politicians approved a contentious bill that makes it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem. 

The bill was proposed in January 2019 after Hong Kong spectators jeered at the anthem during high-profile, international football matches in 2015.

Lawmakers in Beijing have also announced plans to impose a new national security law in Hong Kong that will bypass local legislature. 

Stalled by Covid-19, pro-democracy protests have reignited in the semi-autonomous region in the past month. 

What is happening in Hong Kong at the moment?

The current unrest in Hong Kong is partly centred around a national anthem law.

The law was approved last Thursday but still needs to be signed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. It is expected to take effect from 12 June. 

Pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians said the law was necessary for HK 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 fines of up to 50,000 Hong Kong dollars (€5,678).

This law and a proposed national security law from China are part of the reason behind fears of lessening democracy among citizens in Hong Kong.

Last month, the Chinese government unveiled proposals to strengthen “enforcement mechanisms” in Hong Kong through a new security law.

This law would alter the territory’s mini-constitution, to require its government to enforce measures to be decided later by Chinese leaders.

The measure and the way it is being enacted prompted Washington to announce it no longer will treat Hong Kong as autonomous from Beijing.

The draft for this law would “guard against, stop and punish any separatism, subversion of the national regime, terrorist group activities and such behaviours that seriously harm national security”.

Essentially, it would make it a crime to undermine Beijing’s authority, and activists in Hong Kong have complained that it might be used to suppress political activity.

hong-kong-china-national-anthem Andrew Leung, left, President of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, on 4 June. Source: Vincent Yu

Article 23 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says the city must enact a law to prohibit “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese government.

But the clause has never been implemented due to opposition from people in Hong Kong who feared it would destroy their civil rights.

An attempt to have this Article pass through Hong Kong’s legislature in 2003 was shelved after half a million people took to the streets in protest against it.

China’s move to bring in the new security law would go around Hong Kong’s legislature by having it imposed by the national parliament.

Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, under a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreement that guarantees the city a high degree of autonomy until 2047. 

Disruption

The national anthem law was eventually passed by Hong Kong politicians on Thursday, 4 June, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

It was approved with 41 in favour and one against, but the 75-seat chamber’s pro-democracy faction refused to vote and instead shouted slogans denouncing the law.

One lawmaker even threw a foul-smelling liquid on the legislature’s floor in a bid to halt proceedings.

hong-kong-china-national-anthem Firefighters and police inspect the main chamber of the Legislative Council after a lawmaker dropped pungent liquid on the floor on 4 June. Source: AP/PA Images

“If you want people to respect the national anthem, I’m afraid you have chosen the wrong approach, it is counter-productive,” pro-democracy lawmaker, Wu Chi-wai, said during the debate.

“The Central People’s Government is suppressing us and we are forced to become slaves of this regime,” Wu said.

Pro-democracy protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong for years, but have intensified over the past 12 months.

What happened before the national anthem law was passed?

In January this year, Hong Kong was one of the first places outside mainland China to report cases of the new coronavirus.

Despite its proximity to the mainland, Hong Kong has reported just over 1,000 infections and four deaths so far.

Mass arrests and the measures in place to contain the spread of the disease brought a period of enforced calm for the pro-democracy movement.

This lasted until April when tensions flared after Hong Kong police carried out a sweeping operation against high-profile democracy campaigners, arresting 15 activists on charges related to the 2019 protests.

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protests-in-mong-kok-hong-kong-27-may-2020 Protesters gesture with six fingers raised, signifying 'five demands, not one less' during an anti-government protest in Hong Kong last month. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

In mid-May, Hong Kong extended its Covid-19 measures limiting public gatherings, including for 4 June – the day of the annual vigil marking the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. 

On 24 May, in the most intense clashes in months, thousands of pro-democracy protesters came out on the streets of the city against the proposed security law from China. Police fired tear gas and water cannons.

On 27 May, the US revoked Hong Kong’s special status under US law, paving the way to strip its trading privileges, accusing China of trampling on the territory’s autonomy.

The next day China’s parliament endorsed the law.

Then on 4 June, the separate law about the Chinese national anthem was approved by legislators in Hong Kong.

That evening, thousands of Hong Kongers defied police rules to hold a candlelight vigil on the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Crowds gathered in a public park to light candles and observe a minute of silence. Many chanted ‘democracy now’ and also ‘stand for freedom, stand with Hong Kong’.

As a quick recap, what has happened over the past year in Hong Kong? 

strikes-in-hong-kong Students of China University in Hong Kong protesting in September 2019. Source: Michael Hübner/Geisler-Fotopress

Hong Kong has been gripped by a political crisis born of fears that China is trying to strip the semi-autonomous country of its freedom and democracy. 

These fears reignited in June last year when Hong Kong experienced its biggest political crisis since 1997, the year Britain handed the city back to China.

Often violent, near-daily protests involving clashes with police were sparked by a draft government bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China and its opaque judicial system.

The protests quickly turned into a popular revolt against Beijing’s rule after years of rising fears over the erosion of the city’s freedoms.

The extradition bill was eventually withdrawn, but the government has not budged on protesters’ demands for free elections, an investigation into police violence and an amnesty for the more than 9,000 people arrested over the protests in a year. 

At Thursday’s vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen Square incident, people in Hong Kong held up five fingers to indicate these demands. 

- With reporting from AFP and Press Association 

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