Hong Kong’s Tempest in a T-shirt

Olympics-watching in an occupied city can be stressful

By: Tim Hamlett

Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents enjoy the Olympics as much as anyone else, but the latest sportfest in Tokyo has brought all the suppressed unhappiness in the city bubbling to the surface.

The pleasant surprise of the Games was a gold-medal winning performance from fencer Edgar Cheung. This shouldn’t really have been a surprise – Cheung has been a leading contender in global fencing for years. But fencing is too quick and technical for television so it only surfaces in Olympic years.

Many Hong Kongers gathered in shopping malls to watch Cheung’s exploits on giant screens. This was a curiosity in itself because Hong Kong’s Covid-19 rules still ban gatherings of more than four people. Using this rule, police have suppressed gatherings in shopping malls, which had become something of a tradition among young dissidents, who would gather to sing protest songs and chant slogans. Singers, chanters and the occasional unlucky shopper were hit with HK$5,000 on-the-spot fines.

However, it appeared that gatherings to watch the Olympics didn’t, in the police view, involve the same virus hazards. Unfortunately, the people who gathered to watch the Olympics were by and large much the same people as had gathered to sing protest songs.

The trouble came when Cheung was decorated with his gold medal. Although Hong Kong has its own flag, it uses the Chinese national anthem - a bouncy piece of film music called the March of the Volunteers – for ceremonial purposes. The playing of the anthem was drowned in some malls by the chanting of “We are Hong Kong.” In others, it was booed.

Supporters of the government’s “patriotic” line complained bitterly and in due course, one man was arrested and charged with booing the anthem and encouraging others to do so. Disrespecting the anthem is a recently-created offense in Hong Kong. Authorities hinted darkly that the miscreant might face further charges under the also-recent National Security Law, which features prosecutor-friendly wrinkles like handpicked judges and juryless trials.

Then we came to the T-shirt row. This concerned a badminton player, Angus Ng, who was one of Hong Kong’s medal hopes. He is ranked in the world top 10. In his first match, he sported a black T-shirt bearing his name and the words “Hong Kong, China.” The little Hong Kong flag usually found on Olympic garb was missing.

This was enough to unleash a Twitter storm led by a minor functionary of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, Nicholas Muk. Muk inferred from the color of the T-shirt that Ng was expressing solidarity with the 2019 protesters, who generally wore black to make it harder for police to pick out individuals. He inferred further disloyalty from the absence of the SAR mini-flag and concluded with “if you don’t want to represent Hong Kong China please withdraw from the games.”

This was a strange thing to say to someone who had played with “Hong Kong, China" on his back in four-inch letters. And the point about black T-shirts wasn’t terribly good either. The color of protest in Hong Kong has since the 2014 Umbrella Revolution been yellow. Rioters in 2019 wore black to make it harder to identify individuals, but the riot police also wore black for the same reason.

Muk was then subjected to much online abuse, some of it no doubt from people who would have been quite happy if Ng had been showing support for protesters, and some of it from people who just thought it was a bad time to distract one of the city's medal hopes with an unnecessary row.

In the latter category was the DAB leader, Starry Lee, who said Muk should apologize, which he did the next day.

Ng, meanwhile, explained that his usual shirt sponsor had pulled out at the last minute, so he was forced to order one at short notice from another supplier. He didn’t have time to secure the necessary permission to put the Hong Kong flag on it. No political message was intended.

Badminton officials hastened to supply him with a shirt from their team sponsor, which he wore for his next match. This should have been an easy game against a much lower-ranked player but Ng lost. He said afterwards that he could not deny that the row had been a distraction. Connoisseurs of sportswear complained that the replacement shirt was of low quality and didn’t look comfortable.

Sharp-eyed connoisseurs of the finer points of flag etiquette pointed out that the shirt featured the version of the flag approved by the Chinese government in 1990. Subsequently, the government had endorsed a revised version, apparently featuring slightly larger stars.

The badminton association apologized and promised to field replacement shirts with corrected flaglets.

People from countries which wear their patriotism more comfortably must wonder at the ability of senior non-sportspeople to take all this so seriously. The DAB’s Lee concluded in a later radio broadcast that Muk’s “concern was reasonable.” just “inappropriately” expressed.

The Chief Secretary, John Lee (no relation) said the booing of the anthem showed that “people had a weak concept of their country and of safeguarding national security,” and promised more effort by the government and the Education Bureau to rectify the situation.

He also promised further national security legislation, which is unlikely to solve the underlying problem: the hardliners have the power but the resistance have the numbers. Compromise is not on the menu.

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