Hong Kong Basic Law

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

A look at the rules, protocols and punishment in light of Hong Kong’s looming law on the Chinese national anthem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 9:03am

Stand up for China’s national anthem or you could be put behind bars.

That is the stance of Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei, who was quoted as telling a delegation of Hong Kong lawyers visiting Beijing last week that horse gamblers who remain seated while the anthem plays at the racecourse would be deemed disrespectful.

Critics argued such an assessment would be excessively harsh while supporters claimed it would be reasonable to protect the dignity of the nation. At present, there is no law in Hong Kong about the national anthem. But with the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s decision on Saturday to extend the national anthem law to Hong Kong through the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, local officials must draft legislation to protect the national symbol.

China is not the first country to enact laws protecting its national anthem. Some Western powers have their own laws or rules on the matter, as do many Asian countries. In some cases, people can be punished for failing to show respect when the national anthem is played.

Here is a look at how several countries treat the issue.

Do other countries have rules about how one should act when the national anthem is played?

Yes. In some Western countries, such as Britain and Australia, protocols state how one should behave when the national anthem is played. But they are not laws. In the United States, the rules are set forth in a code on patriotic customs. Asian countries including Singapore and Malaysia have their own specific national anthem law.

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In Thailand, the national anthem is played every day on TV and at public places such as parks, schools, and offices at 8am and 6pm.

Thailand has a separate royal anthem called Sansoen Phra Barami, which is played before every cinema screening, major musical performance and sporting event. The monarchy is still immensely revered in Thailand, and “disrespecting” the royal family carries a maximum jail term of 15 years due to the country’s harsh lèse-majesté laws. Thais can therefore be arrested for not standing while the royal anthem plays, but there is no official penalty for the act alone.

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How should one act when the national anthem is played?

In most countries, people are required to stand as a mark of respect. The US code includes a list of etiquette. During a rendition of the national anthem and when the flag is displayed, all present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart. Those in uniform should give the military salute, and this may also apply to armed forces members and veterans present but not in uniform. When the flag is not displayed, people should face towards the music and conduct themselves as if the flag was there.

In Singapore and Malaysia, national anthem laws also require people to stand at attention.

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What are the penalties for non-compliance?

In Britain and Australia, there are only protocols for how one should act during the national anthem. Even the US does not prescribe any penalties for non-compliance.

Stricter regulations, meanwhile, are seen in some Asian countries. In Singapore, non-compliance could lead to a fine not exceeding S$1,000 (HK$5,720). In Malaysia, a policeman can arrest without a warrant any person offending in his sight, and those knowingly showing disrespect towards the anthem in a public place are subject to a fine not exceeding 100 ringgit (HK$184) or a jail term not exceeding one month.

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What are the experiences of Japan and Germany in dealing with expressions of national identity after their roles in the second world war?

Germany has no national anthem law, but rules exist to punish “defamation of the state and its symbols”, including the anthem.

The German criminal code includes a section on “defamation of the state and its symbols”. It states that “whoever publicly … insults the colours, flag, coat of arms or the anthem of the Federal Republic of Germany or one of its states shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine”.

The law calls for punishment of up to five years’ imprisonment if the act was intentionally to support “efforts against the continued existence” of the country or its “constitutional principles”.

But the German law does not define what constitutes an “insult”. And it does not address how one should behave when the anthem is played.

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The German consulate said the code had to be interpreted in the light of constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of artistic expression, so “mere tackiness is not punishable”.

“Not standing up or even booing when the anthem is played has been found not to be a punishable ‘insult’ in a German court decision,” a consulate spokesman said.

“Court cases in which this section has been applied mostly dealt with distortion of the text, such as singing insults to the melody of the anthem,” he added.

Japan’s national flag and anthem, Kimigayo, and guidelines for them were only established in 1999. The playing of the anthem and displaying of the flag were made mandatory in many Tokyo school ceremonies in 2004 by then governor Shintaro Ishihara.

In the last decade, more than 400 teachers in Tokyo have lost their jobs or were disciplined by their schools for refusing to stand during the national anthem, which some see as too militaristic.

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Teachers have brought lawsuits over the years trying to make the singing of the anthem voluntary, or have appealed against punishment meted out by their schools for not taking part.

In 2013, nine teachers from seven schools were reprimanded for not standing during the anthem at graduation ceremonies.

How have other countries enforced their anthem laws?

In India, the country’s highest court ruled last year that all cinemas must play the national anthem before a movie, and that all audience members must stand in respect. Under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, people are liable to imprisonment for up to three years or a fine or both, if they intentionally prevent the singing of the anthem or cause any disturbance.

In Mexico, in 2004, a woman who got the words wrong while singing the country’s national anthem before a soccer match was fined US$40 for her blunder.