The continuing political hostility between Hong Kong and Mainland China is now playing itself out on the football pitch, with Hong Kong and China fans at a Nov. 17 match separated on opposite sides of a Hong Kong stadium, using separate entrances and even separate toilets as the teams fought to a 0-0 tie in a crucial FIFA World Cup football qualifier.
As they have in the past when the two teams have met, the Hong Kong fans booed the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” and some spectators turned their backs, with some mooning the Chinese flag as the anthem was being played in the 6,000-seat stadium in the heart of the Mongkok district, a hotbed of opposition to mainland political hegemony. Hostility has been growing since last year with a decision by leaders in Beijing to deny promised universal suffrage for general elections scheduled for 2017.
With an estimated 1,200 police on hand to keep order, fans also swore at their Chinese counterparts across the pitch and held up their middle fingers at the start of the proceedings. After being warned not to boo during the anthem, many held up signs saying “boo.”
China Downplays it
Reaction to the affair in China has been muted. The China Daily, the country’s English-language flagship daily, only carried a picture of players with their heads down in tribute to the murders in Paris, in which ISIS gunmen killed more than 140 people, and a caption giving the score of the game. It was downplayed in Hong Kong as well, as the South China Mornng Post, under new editorial leadership and newly sensitive to Beijing's feelings, carried a story on the match in its Nov. 19 editions without ever mentioning the spectators.
“As far as my immediate office is concerned there's very little interest and when I talk about Hong Kong drawing with China, nobody seems to be aware of the 'bad feeling' between the (Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong’s official title) and the mainland,” said a Beijing-based reporter. “Any mention of the SAR is met with screwed up eyes and fingers to the lips…'Shhhhhh.’”
It isn’t the first time tension has spilled over at sports events between the two. In October, the International Football Association (FIFA) fined the Hong Kong Football Association HK$40,000 for jeering the anthem after a 2-3 loss I September to Qatar during a qualifying match.
In almost any situation where Hong Kong and China meet, whether the football pitch or in other venues, the hostility of Hong Kong participants is apparent. The wellsprings of the antagonism grew from the decision by Beijing last September to issue tightened guidelines for the 2017 election, in which universal suffrage had been promised as a result of the 1997 “one country, two systems” basic law promulgated between China and the departing English colonials. While universal suffrage is to be allowed. Beijing said it would select the candidates for the job of chief executive, now held by Beijing’s ally Leung Chun-ying.
Trigger for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement
That kicked off “Occupy” demonstrations that paralyzed the city center from Sept. 26, 2014 to Dec. 15 as thousands of protesters gathered at the government complex in Admiralty and blocked some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Eventually, the demonstrations, at first predominantly from Hong Kong University students, spread to other areas of the city and drew a growing number of middle and working class protesters after police mishandled the affair, spraying tear gas indiscriminately and pounding heads with batons. It was the largest series of demonstrations in decades.
The demonstrations crystalized a much deeper split between Hong Kong and China. As frequently reported, Hong Kong University polls show fewer and fewer people identify themselves as patriotic citizens of the People’s Republic of China, but rather residents of an autonomous Hong Kong, and have on occasion hauled out the British colonial flag that once flew over the territory.
Given the fact that Beijing is ruled by a Communist dictatorship, there was no way the government was going to back away by an inch. But as a result of their 77 days on the streets, a wide majority of the citizenry now regards Leung, the chief executive installed by Beijing, as an ineffectual lackey. Despite widespread impatience with the stalled traffic, probably a majority of citizens are on the side of looser reins from up north
Alienation from Mainland
“Because we don’t like the Chinese national anthem, we have to go against it,” Hong Kong student Jerry Wong, 20, told AFP during the match. “Because Hong Kong is not part of China, I don’t feel like I am Chinese.”
That said, the 0-0 tie between the two teams means neither has a realistic shot at climbing through the ranks towards the World Cup, to be held in Russia between June 14 and July 15, 2018. Both must win their remaining matches to be among the four best second-placed teams to be able to advance. Hong Kong lies second with China third in Group C. They both face Qatar, which already secured its spot in the next round by beating Bhutan 3-0 on Nov. 17.
Also several teams already have achieved better results, including Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. All are relatively stronger than either Hong Kong or China, whose fans erupted in fury at the loss to Hong Kong, which has several hired players. That in turn has unleashed irritated entries in China’s social media about “dark players.” In practice, however, virtually all FIFA teams hire mercenaries, with few from their own countries.
Nonetheless, disappointed Chinese fans also posted criticism on Facebook, calling for the head of the French-born head coach, Alain Perrin, for the team’s lackluster performance against Hong Hong.