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Hong Kong Basic Law

National anthem law will create dilemmas and awkward situations in Hong Kong, rather than love of country

Michael Chugani says implementing the national anthem law will stretch Hong Kong’s resources and end up generating greater antipathy towards China among young people

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 2:27pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 March, 2018, 6:59pm

What was I supposed to do? Standing up solemnly was not an option. Should I have sat to attention? I found myself in this predicament on a mainland highway heading to the Huanggang border crossing last Saturday. Suddenly, the national anthem blared out from the car driver’s mobile phone. It was his incoming call ringtone. 

Startled, I didn’t know what to do now that China has a new law requiring respect for the national anthem. Was the driver a patriot or did he choose the ringtone for fun? Unsure, I straightened up in the front seat next to him but he abruptly cut his incoming call and resumed chatting to me. 

I don’t know about the mainland but would it be an offence to use a March of the Volunteers ringtone under Hong Kong’s proposed national anthem law? Details of the law make clear people must stand and show respect when the anthem is played in public. 

Explainer: what will China’s national anthem law mean for Hong Kong?

But what if it blares out from someone’s mobile in a public toilet while others are urinating? Should they stop, and stand respectfully until the person answers or cuts the call? 

I am not being flippant, just genuinely fearful I could be jailed or fined for breaking a law that doesn’t clearly define what constitutes an offence. Suppose the mainland driver’s phone rang while on the MTR here. Are passengers expected to stand? The law states people cannot use the anthem as background music. Is a ringtone background music? 

The law states people cannot use the anthem as background music. Is a ringtone background music? 

Officials from the chief executive down have tried to reassure a spooked public that the police will only target those who show wilful intent to insult the national anthem. Booing the anthem at soccer matches, as has happened before, is clearly an intent to mock it. But what if 100 spectators simultaneously pick their noses, roll their eyes, yawn or make a gesture indicating they want to throw up? These silent acts are natural body movements. How can prosecutors prove without reasonable doubt they were deliberate acts intended to mock without proving a conspiracy among the 100? Do we even have enough jail cells and resources to handle such mass protests? 

More than three years after the Occupy movement, the authorities still haven’t prosecuted all of the public figures who surrendered peacefully to the police, let alone the thousands of others who took part. If prosecutors can’t build solid cases or lack the resources to go after those who openly declared their intention to block streets for 79 days, how can they prove intent by people who collectively pick their noses? 

I have nothing against the law. People should show respect for a country’s national anthem. As an American, I feel proud when  The Star-Spangled Banner is played after a US athlete wins an international sports competition. Hongkongers should likewise respect March of the Volunteers. But you can’t force respect from people through a law. 

Explainer: how do countries around the world foster respect for their national anthem?

Demosisto’s Agnes Chow Ting told me in a TV interview that respect is a two-way street. Chow, who belongs to the post-1990s generation, said she can’t respect China’s Communist Party or its national anthem if Beijing doesn’t respect her. 

Hong Kong needs a national anthem law – not to instil patriotism, but to safeguard basic respect

Beijing has already alienated much of Chow’s generation, most of whom identify themselves as Hongkongers instead of Chinese. They will try to avoid jail time by not mocking the national anthem in public but they will mock it in their hearts. That is a tragedy because they are the future of Hong Kong. 

Love of country was a main theme at the just-concluded National People’s Congress session. Nothing wrong with that. But patriotism has to be earned. Newly-elected NPC Standing Committee member Tam Yiu-chung’s thoughtless remark that those who oppose China’s one-party rule will not qualify as legislators further alienated rather than earned patriotism among Chow’s generation. 

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host