Hongkongers, stand up for a sensible debate on the national anthem law

  • Mike Rowse says expecting respect for a national anthem is not unprecedented in Asia. But, while some criticism in Hong Kong about the national anthem bill is hysterical, concern over the two-year prosecution window should be addressed
PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 January, 2019, 7:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 January, 2019, 7:24am

Some 50 years ago, I lived for a few months in Bangkok. Our local cinema always played the Thai national anthem before the main feature film. There was a small notice at the bottom of the screen telling us to stand and everyone did. Even though I was a hippy at the time, and by nature rebellious, it seemed perfectly natural to stand along with everyone else.

I still remember there was a point during the rendition when the music stopped, the farangs in the audience would start to sit down but the locals remained standing. Sure enough, after a few seconds, the music resumed. I record this experience to illustrate that playing a country’s national anthem, and expecting everyone – both local and foreign – to show respect is by no means a new phenomenon in Asia.

It seems worthwhile pointing this out as we start our own community’s consideration of a bill to make respecting the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, a legal requirement. Or, to put it another way, disrespecting the anthem will be an offence potentially leading to a significant fine and even a jail term.

Judging by some of the reactions in the media and on talk shows, you would think this was the jackboot of a wicked administration coming down to crush the last vestige of freedom of the Hong Kong people. Is it really? Are espousers of such views being just a tiny bit hysterical? Has anyone heard of hyperbole?

Take, for example, the claim that the draft bill does not outline all the possible ways of behaving that might constitute disrespect. “People have a right to know exactly what they can and can’t do as a fundamental legal principle,” one legislator said on the radio. The rebuttal came quickly: “Any more than the law specifies all the ways in which you are not allowed to deliberately kill someone. However you do it, it is still murder, and that is against the law.” Is that so difficult to understand?

Even if Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Patrick Nip Tak-kuen were to list 50 possible ways to insult the anthem, you could bet your bottom dollar that some clever clogs would invent a 51st way. And if he listed 500 ways, you could be sure a determined dissident would still find one more.

New anthem law: what you can and cannot do

It is at this point that we need to wheel out the well-known legal concept of the “reasonable man”. Under the common law system, when interpreting a case, the judge (or jury, which in theory is composed of reasonable men and women) asks themselves how the proverbial reasonable man would view matters.

For example, if the law said that while the anthem was being played everyone had to stand, how should we deal with a person in a wheelchair? Clearly, a reasonable man would say he or she should be exempted. But if the law exempted everyone in a wheelchair and all the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council turned up for the swearing-in ceremony in wheelchairs so they wouldn’t have to stand up, it wouldn’t take too long for a reasonable man to conclude that this was a dramatic conspiracy to show disrespect.

Nor should we forget the well-known concept of common sense, which needs to be brought to bear on implementation. For example, it cannot be a requirement that everyone actually sing the anthem. There are many people of other nationalities in Hong Kong who would not know the words. Among Chinese, there are many who speak Cantonese or another tongue, not Mandarin. There are some people who know they sing badly and may be concerned that their poor vocals would leave them vulnerable to prosecution. For these and other reasons, it would not be sensible for the law to require that everyone sing. But, it is reasonable to require that those who do not sing stand solemnly while others do join in.

Chinese live-streaming star locked up for ‘disrespecting’ anthem

Even students in international schools should have some understanding of the anthem’s history, and its meaning in their own language. The lyrics – “Arise, ye who refuse to be slaves” – are pretty inspiring and compare well with the anthems of other countries. The duration and style are also favourable, not much over a minute of lively singing where some others drone on like dirges with words to match.

There is one aspect of the proposal which merits further thought, though, and that is giving the police up to two years from the time of the incident to bring charges. The usual interval for offences of this type would be six months. Nip’s defence of this provision was less than convincing. After all, if large sections of a football crowd were heard booing, it is not necessary to identify every single person who sat in those parts of the stands. Just identify and arrest those who can clearly be seen on the tape doing wrong. The others will soon get the message about what behaviour is unacceptable.

Hong Kong must respect ‘one country’ to keep ‘two systems’

My main concern at this stage is the level and tenor of debate. I very much hope this is not going to turn out to be one of those political reflexes: some Legco members say, in effect, that if the government is in favour, then we’re against, while others say precisely the reverse. We need a calm and reasoned public discourse so that we reach a conclusion which all, or at least most, of the community feels comfortable with.

In short, we need our reasonable man and his common sense.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. [email protected]