Help, anthem anarchists are killing soccer in Hong Kong!

Yonden Lhatoo is somewhat amused but more alarmed by the antics of rebellious crowds turning up at soccer stadiums to boo the national anthem rather than watch matches

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 2:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 November, 2017, 10:57pm

Hong Kong has a popular new pastime these days: going to soccer games to boo or support the national anthem – or watch others do it.

Kind of like the Rugby Sevens, where many spectators turn up for beer-fuelled buffoonery more than the actual game – only, in this case they’re playing with fire by testing the limits of tolerance from policymakers in Beijing who see such shenanigans as treason.

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It’s become a regular feature at international matches hosted by the city, now that Hong Kong is on the verge of adopting new legislation recently enacted on the mainland to make disrespect for March of the Volunteers a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison.

It’s understandable that Hong Kong Football Association chief Mark Sutcliffe is rather miffed about the whole thing.

“Our beloved game is being hijacked (to the obvious delight of the media) as a political tool by both sides in a polarised, fractured society,” he wrote in his blog on Friday. “It’s very sad that the action on the pitch is now seen by many as secondary to what is happening off it.”

Sutcliffe also noted a trend involving an “orchestrated anti-booing rent-a-crowd – people are apparently paid to come and oppose those who are booing”.

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He took a swipe at the media as well for providing a platform for political grandstanding, noting that newspapers had “stopped reporting on the football and are solely interested in the crowd behaviour before the match, which, of course, just encourages more booing”.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, which I am sure the media knows and relishes,” he wrote.

As a news editor guilty of driving such coverage, I have to admit he has a point, although he should also understand there are bigger issues at stake here than just kicking a ball around the pitch. It goes far beyond spoiling the fun for genuine soccer fans – it’s a trolling challenge to the “comprehensive jurisdiction” that Beijing is asserting over the city in response to the alarming level of contempt towards the sovereign nation coming from some quarters here.

Scaremongering by card-carrying Beijing loyalists like former justice secretary Elsie Leung Oi-see is not helping either. She’s been insisting the anthem law should carry a retroactive effect to penalise past offenders – like these soccer fans.

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Let’s be realistic, looking at the gangs of anthem anarchists in the spectator stands. Do Beijing loyalists seriously expect scores of them to be arrested and prosecuted once the new law comes into effect?

Apart from the daunting legal logistics of identifying and proving a case against each culprit in court, do we really want to create another, bigger batch of self-styled martyrs for democracy with mass incarcerations?

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Here’s the thing to keep in mind about Hongkongers: they consider their civil liberties to be sacrosanct and will react badly to any perceived encroachment from across the border into their personal freedoms.

You misinform them that they’ll have to drop their fishball noodles and spring to attention if they hear the national anthem go off at the local dai pai dong, of course there’ll be a backlash.

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At the end of the day, you can’t make people wear patriotism on their sleeves. You can’t instil a genuine sense of flag-waving pride in the country and anthem-saluting love for the motherland through force. It has to be earned.

A frustrated Wang Zhenmin, legal chief of Beijing’s liaison office, complained on Friday about some stubborn, China-hating Hongkongers with “granite” in their heads who just won’t listen to reason.

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May cooler minds prevail in this atmosphere of alarm, where immovable objects clash against unstoppable forces as we stare anthem Armageddon in the face.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post