A Suspicious Hong Kong Awaits a Mainland National Anthem

On Nov. 17, 2015, as China’s national football team faced Hong Kong in a World Cup playoff match in Hong Kong’s Mongkok Stadium, a relatively large minority of the crowd broke out in booing during the playing of the Chinese National Anthem. Some waved slogans saying “Hong Kong is not China” while others shouted: “We are Hong Kong.”

Since then, regularly during sports performances in the territory, the booing inevitably breaks out. Especially since the Umbrella movement protests against Beijing’s refusal to grant universal suffrage to the city’s votes, as anti-mainland Chinese sentiment rose, catcalling during the anthem became a regular occurrence, raising concerns about violence at sports matches. Authorities had to deploy police to forestall clashes as pro-Beijing elements in the city faced off protesters.

Over the ensuing period, jeering the anthem – by what critics say is a small but vocal minority – has become a tradition that is galling to the authorities, an unwelcome reminder that only 32 percent of the city’s residents regard themselves as a part of the mainland – up only slightly from 31.5 percent during the 79-day umbrella protest. The city’s residents have a long list of complaints that have grown sharply, including the massive influx of mainland tourists who, the locals say, are uncouth and untidy.

There are deeper concerns over the steady strangulation of the city’s democratic standards and the continuing, tightening squeeze over a city that has long been proud of its independence and which hosts a large segment of its population descended from those who escaped from China during the violence of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

It now appears that Beijing has had enough. On Jan. 9, the Hong Kong government proposed a bill in the Legislative Council, the city’s government, that would provide up to three years in jail and a fine of HK$50,000 for anybody who disrespects the national anthem. It is also to be learned and sung in the city's scores of international schools. It is expected to be tabled before Jan. 23 and to be acted upon before the Legco’s July recess. Authorities are given two years to prosecute offenders.

That sounds like a red flag for a large segment of the city’s residents who almost since the 1997 handover to China have found ways to get up Beijing’s nose although authorities have gone out of their way to stress that while they support the law. It seems certain that they will continue to find ways to satirize the anthem and find ways to challenge the mainland government. While most authoritarian countries demand a similar kind of respect for officialdom, it has been alien to Hong Kong.

“We need to reflect the intention and the principles of the national law,” said Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip in a radio interview, who appeared to caution that local authorities would be as accommodating as possible. “But at the same time, in our local legislation, we would take into account Hong Kong's legal system and also Hong Kong's circumstances,” he said.

“Leaving aside the fact that some attendees at official events may have fallen asleep during boring speeches preceding the anthem, or may be unable to stand due to disability, the obvious problem with the proposed requirement is that respect is a feeling,” wrote David Webb, a financial analyst and activist who publishes a newsletter on economic and political governance in Hong Kong. “You either have it (to a greater or lesser extent) or you don't.. It is earned, not taken. One can no more command respect than one can command a thought or a belief.”

Under the new law, Webb wrote, “those who don't have respect will be obligated to fake it - to show a respect that they don't actually have. Instead of rolling their eyes, crossing their fingers, turning their backs, looking at their shoes or booing, they must fake respect. So how will the authorities know who really respects the anthem, and who is faking it?”

As for China, its first official anthem dates from the dying days of the Qing dynasty —1911. Since then there have been several changes. The republican period saw three anthems, culminating in one from 1930, the party song of the Kuomintang, which is still used by the Republic of China on Taiwan today. The current Chinese anthem, March of the Volunteers, was written in the 1930s and became official after the revolution although it was sidelined during the Cultural Revolution, and its author, Tian Han, imprisoned. The East is Red, an old folk song given new words in praise of Mao, became the de facto anthem.

March of the Volunteers officially returned after the death of Mao but with some new words of praise for him and the party. The original 1934 lyrics were reinstated in 1982. It is hard to separate patriotism and political trends. As Webb pointed out in his newsletter, during the Cultural Revolution, Tian was jailed without trial as a "counterrevolutionary" for a play criticizing Mao's policies and died in jail in 1968. Translated, the lyrics are as follows:

Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves!

With our flesh and blood,

let us build a new Great Wall!

As China faces its greatest peril

From each one the urgent call to action comes forth.

Arise! Arise! Arise!

Millions of but one heart

Braving the enemies' fire! March on!

Braving the enemies' fire! March on!

March on! March, march on!

The legislation takes a no-nonsense approach. The anthem, it says, “must be played and sung in a way that is in keeping with its dignity.” While it is being played and sung, it says in Sec. (2), “the etiquette of the persons who take part in or attend the occasion is (a) to stand solemnly and report themselves with dignity; and (b)to not behave in a way disrespectful to the national anthem.”

The song can’t be used in a commercial advertisement, mustn’t be used as background music and can’t be used in a private funeral event.

Officials say nobody will be prosecuted unless they willfully boo the song, distort it or sings it in a derogatory manner or alter the lyrics or score. On Jan. 10, activist Webb said he was taking one last chance “before the bamboo curtain descends:

Arise, ye who refuse to be sellers!

With our cash and debt,

Let us build a Great Wall of money!

As China faces its greatest slowdown,

From each one the urgent call to action comes forth.

Buy! Buy! Buy!

Millions of but one heart,

Braving the fundamentals, pile in!

Braving the central planning, fill up!