China's Plan to Outlaw 'Improper' Use of National Anthem Sparks Concern in Hong Kong

Schools may have to teach the 'proper' use of the anthem from the first grade, while anyone mocking or changing the lyrics could face criminal prosecution under a proposed law.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam tells a news conference people were being "too sensitive" about new rules mandating respect for China's national anthem, Aug. 29, 2017.

Plans by China's parliament to make it a criminal offense to mock or alter the country's national anthem have sparked concerns in Hong Kong, where the proposed legislation will also likely apply.

The standing committee of China's National People's Congress is currently discussing draft legislation setting out the "proper" way to sing "The March of the Volunteers," the rousing revolutionary march that accompanies China's gold medal-winners at international competitions.

If the bill becomes law, anyone "maliciously modifying" its lyrics will face criminal prosecution and up to 15 days' administrative detention without the need for a trial.

And the committee is proposing that the law also be extended to cover the former colonial territories of Hong Kong and Macau.

Use of the anthem will be banned at funerals and other occasions deemed inappropriate, including in commercials or as background music in lifts and shopping malls, if the bill is passed.

Instead, the music may only be heard at formal political gatherings such as daily flag-raising ceremonies in the nation's schools, important occasions of state and sporting events, the draft says.

Criminalization of speech

Hong Kong was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms under the terms of its 1997 handover to Chinese rule, although the city has adopted legislation governing the handling of China's national flag.

Pan-democratic Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan said the proposed legislation prompts concerns about the criminalization of speech and even thought in the formerly freewheeling city.

"The national anthem isn't like the national flag," Chan said. "The national flag is a material object, but the national anthem could potentially appear in many different guises, maybe some of them not so solemn."

"For that to be criminalized is like creating a thought crime, because it's very hard to know definitively what someone is thinking when they are singing it," she said. "The possibilities [for interpretation] are infinite."

Other Hong Kong residents said they are unaccustomed to being forced to show public reverence to symbols of the state.

"When we were little, just to be naughty, we would sing along to the tune with the words 'beef and spinach, rotten! rotten! rotten!'," one listener told a radio call-in show at the weekend. "I guess we won't be allowed to sing that any more."

"Does this means that if it comes on when we're eating in a restaurant, everyone will have to stop eating and stand up?" said another caller. "Will we all have to stand still if we're walking along the street and the national anthem is broadcast?"

Teachers said they are more concerned that the law will enforce "patriotic education" in the city's schools, starting in elementary school.

"Is it necessary to adopt all of the same methods as schools in mainland China, for example, teaching them from the first grade onwards?" lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, said.

"I think there needs to be a public debate about this."

'Their lies aren't working'

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui said on Monday that nationalistic "brainwashing" of Hong Kong's young people is already taking place.

He said textbooks and teaching materials about the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, already teach students that civil disobedience such as rent strikes in a protest over rate hikes is wrong.

But the city's chief executive Carrie Lam said people were being "too sensitive" about the new rules, which she expects to see enter Hong Kong's statute book.

"Protecting the dignity of the national anthem is the obligation and responsibility of the Hong Kong SAR government and indeed of any Chinese national," Lam told journalists on Tuesday.

"We're living in a more politicized environment, but we need not adopt this very politicized stance in considering and dealing with any matter," she said.

Across the internal border in the northern province of Hebei, veteran journalist Zhu Xinxin said many in mainland China are also worried about the ruling Chinese Communist Party's increasing insistence on total respect from citizens.

"If you set up the nation as an object of worship, then basically anyone who manages to get hold of state power would be able to wield the power of an emperor," Zhu said.

"They would be able to use the power of the state to crush any form of dissent; that is the biggest danger with the worship of one's country."

A Chinese lawyer who asked to remain anonymous said patriotism is increasingly being used as a means to control people.

"They are building their stability based on lies and violence," the lawyer said. "Now they are threatening people because their lies aren't working."

Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.