The former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was once quoted as saying: 'A man may climb Mount Everest for himself, but at the summit he plants his country's flag.' The symbolic importance of a country's flag at moments of national honour and glory is obvious. The Hong Kong community, for instance, was in a state of euphoria when local activists managed to defy Japanese armed vessels and flew the Chinese five-star red flag on the disputed Diaoyu Islands last year. The thorny question, however, is how much disrespect towards the flag will be tolerated by society, especially at times of public dissatisfaction with governing powers. Hong Kong authorities have refrained from imposing any restriction against the abuse of either the Union Flag or the Chinese flag in the colony. Protesters who put the Chinese five stars against a black background during the massive demonstrations against Beijing in the wake of the military crackdown on the student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were not punished. As recently as only two days ago, several protesters set alight the bauhinia emblem of the future Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to vent their discontent at the way the Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa is seeking to revise laws on civil liberties. Ironically, the provisional legislature is deliberating on two bills that would protect national and regional flags and emblems after the change of sovereignty. Modelled on Chinese national law, the two local provisions seek to ban the use of the flags and emblems in trademarks or advertisements. The national flag and emblem must also not be displayed or used in furnishings or ornaments. Mr Tung, meanwhile, is to be empowered to stipulate other occasions and places at which the use of the designs are prohibited. On summary conviction, an offender could be fined as much as $50,000. Moreover, a person who desecrates the national or regional flags and emblems by publicly and wilfully burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling on them will be liable to three years' imprisonment. The maximum term is in line with a resolution by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress made in June 1990. Hong Kong's adapted version of the national law is in fact more lenient. In the case of the mainland, serious offenders can also be deprived of their political rights. A minor offender in China might be jailed for up to 15 days, rather than having the option of paying a fine. There is no known legal precedent of an intended insult to the Chinese flag and emblem on the mainland. One could argue that under the principle of 'one country, two systems', the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region could afford to be more relaxed about the misuse or abuse of its sovereign symbols. Mr Tung apparently thinks otherwise. There is no difference in terms of sentences imposed between offences against the SAR flag and the national one. He seems to be eager to uphold the integrity of national symbols as a means of promoting a much-needed sense of patriotism in Hong Kong. It remains to be seen how effective restrictions will be in boosting national and social cohesion. But undue pressure could prove counter-productive. In justifying why flag burning should be tolerated in the 1989 case of Texas versus Johnson, US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Junior asserted that: 'We do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so we dilute the freedom that this cherished emblem represents.' The best way to preserve the flag's special role, he surmised, was to persuade dissidents that they are wrong. Heavy measures against the desecration of sovereign symbols are no more than signs of weakness on the part of the government. An open political system should be able to allow criticism even in the form of flag burning. As the US Supreme Court Judge observed, there was 'no better way to counter a flag-burner's message than by saluting the flag that burns, no surer means of preserving the dignity even of the flag that burned'. One witness in the case, he noted, had set an excellent example by according the remains of the burned Stars and Stripes a respectful burial. Although upset by the court decision, Congressman Robert Dornan appeared to have embraced the spirit of the verdict. Instead of seeking to overturn the ruling, he urged his compatriots to wear flags on their lapels and put them on their hats. Before pushing through the bills, SAR officials should perhaps try to appreciate what the former US president Woodrow Wilson said. 'The things that the flag stands for were created by the experiences of a great people. Everything that it stands for was written by their lives. The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment, but of history.' The integrity of the flag can only be preserved through promotion of respect rather than punishment of disrespect. And there is no better way for the SAR government to earn respect than by giving substance to the flag in the form of popular social policies.