Hong Kong needs a national anthem law – not to instil patriotism, but to safeguard basic respect
Alice Wu says Hong Kong is not alone in debating what is acceptable behaviour while the national anthem is playing, and it’s clear that taking a knee, as protesting football players do in the US, is not the same as booing and flipping the middle finger
The controversy of enacting a national anthem law in Hong Kong has been brewing for at least two years, when some Hongkongers took it upon themselves to boo the national anthem at soccer matches.
Last week, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress inserted the law into Annex III of our de facto constitution, the Basic Law, which obliges us to adopt the measure by way of local legislation.
Alarm was raised, naturally, and not just because of our different legal systems. We have to recognise that the blatant abuse of the national anthem by soccer fans at recent matches was a major reason for the hue and cry.
There is nothing surprising in Beijing’s reaction to the taunting. Beijing’s choice of action – to enact a law on the mainland and then requiring it to be made law in the special administrative regions – is its way of taking the necessary steps to protect Chinese people who would be offended and distressed by the abuse of their national identity.
More importantly, it is its way of asserting its sovereign power. By drawing a line in bright red paint, the central government is telling one and all what it is prepared to do to defend national dignity.
The anthem controversy is part of a running dialogue between Hong Kong and the mainland about identity and freedoms; it has been a deeply emotional and difficult conversation, for both sides.
Hong Kong should face this constitutional reality. We know that laws against the public display of disrespect for anthems and flags are commonplace.
The United States has been grappling with a similar issue. Since late last year, a string of football players have knelt or sat when the national anthem was being played, in protest against the treatment of black Americans. This blew up into a major controversy recently when President Donald Trump criticised the players for disrespect.
Taking a knee during the national anthem is contentious in the US, which also has laws demanding respect for the national anthem and flag.
Hong Kong is no bystander in this “war” between the National Football League and Trump over what is acceptable behaviour when the anthem is playing.
Beijing must heed the American experience. Top-down demands for patriotism are usually met with resistance on the ground.
Yet, we should also point out that an act of resistance such as kneeling is not the same as flipping the middle finger. Taking a knee may be a subtle form of protest, but it is not meant to be disrespectful.
Here is where we must admit that giving the national anthem “the finger” is incomparable to taking a knee. Having a hissy fit is not fighting injustices; it makes for very bad arguments, which hurt the cause, and rarely ends for the better.
That is also a lesson from the American experience.
Meanwhile, let common sense be our guide as we continue to debate the limits of respectful behaviour. And common sense says that a law requiring pedestrians to stop in the middle of traffic, to be without a care for personal safety and those of others, in order to stand for the national anthem is unenforceable and ridiculous.
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It’s not patriotism that the national anthem law aims to legally require. It’s basic respect, for others and for ourselves, and decency in public conduct that is at the heart of the national anthem law.
Expressing visceral emotions without a care for others who are not the intended targets but who also have a right to be in the space and occasion is the reason such laws are deemed necessary.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA