Cool heads needed with anthem law
If the legislation is handled correctly in Hong Kong, it could provide a classic example of how ‘one country, two systems’ should work
A fundamental feature of the “one country, two systems” concept governing Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing is that national laws are rarely applied to the city. Hong Kong has its own legislature and the overwhelming majority of its laws originate locally. Since the handover, only 13 national laws have been applied to Hong Kong. Most of them concern matters which are not controversial.
The latest national law to be applied has, however, been a source of much debate amid growing cross-border tension in recent years. The national anthem law, applied to Hong Kong by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee yesterday, makes public shows of disrespect for the anthem a criminal offence. Some have expressed concern that the law will unduly restrict freedom of speech. Others have called for the law to be put in place quickly, or even to be made retroactive, to catch Hong Kong soccer fans, some of whom have been booing the national anthem at matches since 2014. The government must make every effort to avoid confusion by explaining how the law will work and what it will mean.
There is a need for cool heads to prevail. If the implementation of the national anthem law is handled properly, it could provide a classic example of how one country, two systems should work. The “one country” part of the process was in play yesterday with the application of the law to Hong Kong. It will be added to Annex III of the Basic Law, the city’s de facto constitution. Now, it is for Hong Kong to implement the law through its own legislation. Here, we will see the city’s separate system at work. The law must follow the usual legislative process. It needs to be drafted clearly and carefully so that everyone can understand what sort of conduct would amount to a breach of the law. Only conduct which can reasonably be enforced should be made a criminal offence.
Time will be needed for the bill to be scrutinised by lawmakers and for public debate. The process should not be unduly hurried or dragged out. When enforced, the law is likely to be challenged in court. But if it is clear and goes no further than necessary in restricting free speech, the courts will uphold it. This is what happened with a similar law protecting the national flag. Concerns have, understandably, been raised about suggestions the law might be made retroactive. The government must ensure it complies with the Basic Law, which requires compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It will remain lawful for soccer fans to boo the anthem until the law is passed. But they should not see this as an invitation to do so. Such conduct is to be condemned. The anthem should be respected, with or without a law that says so.