China imposes national anthem law on Hong Kong, raising spectre of prison terms for abuse of song
Country’s top legislative body formally inserts law into city’s mini-constitution, but details of how it will be applied in Hong Kong yet to be thrashed out
China’s top legislative body on Saturday imposed a national anthem law on Hong Kong in a bid to curb acts that “challenge the bottom line” of one country, two systems, but lawmakers in the city were given a free hand over whether to apply it retroactively.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee inserted the law into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and also endorsed a change to China’s criminal code to make abuse of the national anthem or flag on the mainland punishable by up to three years in prison.
Soon afterwards the Hong Kong government issued a statement saying it would adopt the measure – now incorporated into Annexe III of the city’s Basic Law – “by way of appropriate local legislation” consistent with the city’s constitutional and legal regime.
Under one country, two systems, Hong Kong’s governing formula, the city has maintained a separate legal system from mainland China since the handover of sovereignty from Britain in 1997.
Hong Kong’s No 2 official, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, on Saturday said the government would try to enact the legislation as soon as possible, but would take into account the views of local lawmakers and the public.
But Cheung did not commit to launching a public consultation, which opposition pan-democrat legislators had urged.
Members of the city’s legislature have called for guidelines on how the law should be enforced without undermining freedom of expression.
The anthem law comes in the wake of recent cases of abuse against the song, including among Hong Kong football fans, who have been seen booing the anthem at international matches.
The inclusion of the legislation in the Basic Law was “an important manifestation of the central government’s comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, according to He Shaoren, spokesman for the Standing Committee, citing recent remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The law was also applied to Macau, which is similarly governed under one country, two systems.
“In recent years, incidents of disrespect against the national anthem have occurred in Hong Kong, challenging the bottom line of the principle of one country, two systems and social morality, and triggering rage among Chinese including most Hong Kong residents,” said Zhang Rongshun, deputy director for the Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC Standing Committee.
“It is urgent and important to apply the national anthem law in Hong Kong in a bid to prevent and handle such offences.”
China adopts harsher penalties for disrespecting national anthem and paves way for measure to be adopted into Hong Kong law
Anyone who maliciously modifies the lyrics, or plays or sings March of the Volunteers in “a distorted or disrespectful way in public”, can be detained for up to 15 days in “administrative detention” by police under the anthem law, or imprisoned for three years under the criminal code.
But not all legal provisions in the mainland law have to be copied into the Hong Kong legal system, argued Albert Chen Hung-yee, a member of the NPC’s Basic Law Committee, which advises Beijing on the mini-constitution.
Watch: how well do Hongkongers know their national anthem?
Despite this, Chen said implementing local legislation on the anthem did not fall under the scope of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy promised under one country, two systems, and thus the probability of the government launching a public consultation was not high.
Zhang Dinghuai, deputy director of Shenzhen University’s Centre for the Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau, said the penalties stipulated on the mainland “merited some reference on the part of Hong Kong lawmakers and there should be nationwide standardisation now that the law has been imposed”.
But he added it would be up to the Hong Kong government to strike the right balance.
On the contentious point of retroactivity, He said it would be a matter for the Hong Kong and Macau legislatures.
Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a member of the Standing Committee, said that while there had been no discussion about retroactivity by the body, there was no obvious reason why it should be applied, though she could not rule it out.
“The NPC draws no deadline for Hong Kong’s local legislation. The time of its implementation will depend on the opposition camp’s filibustering,” Fan said.
Hong Kong’s education minister, Kevin Yeung Yun-hung, said the government would issue guidelines for schools on the national anthem when necessary. The mainland law specifically requires the anthem be taught in schools.
Ip Kwok-him, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC and a member of the Executive Council that advises the city’s leader on policy, said on Saturday that Hongkongers would have to stop walking and stand still whenever the national anthem plays in public.
“When the law takes effect, people will have to stand up and show respect when the anthem is played. That’s for sure,” he told a radio show. “Someone asked me whether people who are walking will have to stop. Yes, just stop.”