Anti-mainland China sentiments

Law criminalising insults to national anthem passed by China’s legislature, with detention for offenders

Law governing use of the anthem will also be applied to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 7:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2019, 2:47pm

China’s top legislature on Friday passed a law that will eventually apply in Hong Kong, criminalising disrespect for the national anthem and laying out stiff penalties for offenders, including periods in detention.

Concerns in Hong Kong about the implications for freedom of expression prompted the city’s justice minister to give an assurance that the government understood such anxieties and would gauge public views first.

Officials said the legislation would be inserted into the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, as early as next month.

This would be followed by work to formulate local legislation on the issue that would fit with “Hong Kong’s circumstances”, the city’s No 2 official, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, said.

Cheung said the local government would “listen to opinions in the Legislative Council ... in deciding the most effective way to implement the law according to Hong Kong’s circumstances”.

Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said the local version of the law would maintain the original intent of the mainland legislation while safeguarding Hongkongers’ basic rights and freedoms.

“I understand the concerns expressed in society, and I will continue to listen to other opinions on this issue,” Yuen said. “We hope that [Hong Kong’s] legal clauses can be as clear as possible, so that they will not create any misunderstanding in law enforcement.”

Opposition pan-democrats in Hong Kong’s legislature urged the local government to hold a formal public consultation before a final bill was introduced.

Watch: how well do Hongkongers know the national anthem?

The law passed on Friday bars use of the national anthem, March of the Volunteers, in commercial advertisements or at private memorial services. Attendees at events where the anthem is played are required to stand up straight and remain solemn for the song under the law.

Offenders in mainland China would be liable to 15 days in police detention. Violations could also be dealt with under other laws.

“Viewpoints that pit the need to maintain the dignity of the national anthem against so-called freedom of speech or expression are wrong,” said Wu Zeng, director of the national law office of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. “It is a basic requirement for every citizen to respect, understand and be able to sing the national anthem.”

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Critics said the law contained unclear legal language, including that used on what would constitute a breach of solemnity and the maximum jail terms for violations.

Wu said there were very few past cases in which the anthem had been insulted, but she cited a Hong Kong case in which two residents were tried by a court for insulting the national flag in 1998.

Internet users in mainland China reacted furiously in 2015 when Hong Kong soccer fans booed during the national anthem ahead of a World Cup qualifier, amid growing anti-mainland sentiment in the former British colony.

Watch: Hong Kong soccer fans boo China national anthem and chant

Ip Kwok-him, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC and a former local lawmaker, said the government should table a bill “as soon as possible”, preferably by the first quarter of next year.

But he said it was difficult to estimate how long it would take for local legislators to process the bill, as it might need to undergo detailed scrutiny by a bills committee.

It remained unclear on Friday whether pan-democratic legislators would make the law the centrepiece of their next battle with the government.

Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said it was too early to declare if they would oppose the law, as it would depend on how it was drafted.

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

“The government has to stipulate how the law will be adopted in the local legal system, with human rights and freedom of expression balanced,” he said.

A clear definition of the law was needed to allay concerns, Yeung added.

He called on the government to launch a public consultation, an idea supported by Ma Fung-kwok, who sits in both the local and national legislatures.

“The local government could consider a public consultation on the details of the legislation,” Ma said.