Defiant HK soccer fans boo anthem

JEERS::Some see China’s National Anthem Act as specifically targeting Hong Kong soccer fans, who have frequently disrupted the anthem at the start of matches

AP, HONG KONG

Sat, Nov 11, 2017 - Page 6

Hong Kong soccer fans on Thursday loudly booed China’s national anthem at a match in the territory, defying Beijing days after Chinese Communist Party leaders tightened penalties for disrespecting the song.

Fans dressed in red in one section of the stadium jeered as the anthem, March of the Volunteers, was played at the start of an international friendly against Bahrain.

Some waved banners reading “Fight for Hong Kong” and “Power for Hong Kong,” while security personnel sought to prevent onlookers and some reporters from taking photographs of the banners and fans.

“It is absurd the way we are told what to do,” said Ming Cheung, a soccer fan who wore a red T-shirt. “If the government puts down a law dictating how people behave, it means they don’t have other means of making people love them.”

The long-simmering anthem controversy highlights increasingly tense relations between the mainland and the semiautonomous former British colony, where pro-democracy activists say Beijing is tightening its grip.

It mirrors a similar debate in the US, where some football players have kneeled when the Star Spangled Banner was played to protest racial inequality, prompting US President Donald Trump to urge team owners to fire them.

Anthem jeering reflects the wider concerns of some Hong Kongers determined to resist China’s growing influence on the territory.

They are concerned Hong Kong’s high autonomy and unique cultural identity are being eroded, as Beijing asserts its authority and reneges on promises to let the territory largely run its own affairs.

Tension over the booing in Hong Kong escalated this summer after the Chinese government moved to toughen punishment for those caught disrespecting the song in public.

A new National Anthem Act came into effect last month, the same month as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) emerged from the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress as the nation’s most powerful leader in decades.

Last Saturday, the Chinese National People’s Congress amended the criminal code so that anyone disrespecting the anthem could be imprisoned for up to three years.

A local version of the law still needs to be drafted in Hong Kong and Macau, special Chinese administrative regions with separate legal systems and guaranteed Western-style civil liberties.

Some see the anthem law as specifically targeting Hong Kong soccer fans, who have frequently disrupted the anthem at the start of matches.

The stadium heckling took hold about two years ago, when Hong Kong played China in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in the wake of massive 2014 pro-democracy protests in the territory.

In response, FIFA fined the Hong Kong Football Association.

It is unclear how the law is to be implemented in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy activists and lawmakers fear it would restrict freedom of expression.

The government needs to address concerns the law would be overly strict, Hong Kong University law professor Simon Young said.

For example, if a fan remains silent, sits down or walks away to buy food, it should not be a chance for prosecution, Young said.

If Hong Kong’s law allows that leeway, it “still leaves a lot of freedom for people to protest in a way that does not actively defile, desecrate or insult,” he said.