Protesters gathered in Hong Kong on Wednesday as the city's government tabled a new law banning "insults or disrespect" to the national anthem of the People's Republic of China.
Activists broke into Civic Square outside government headquarters and hung a banner reading "Freedom not to sing" to flagpoles in protest against the bill, which had its first reading the Legislative Council (LegCo) before being passed to a committee on Wednesday.
Security guards tore down the banner, as protesters faced off with a pro-Beijing group supporting the law.
Ivan Lam, who chairs the pro-democracy party Demosisto, said the national anthem law will likely open the door to a renewed bid by the government to impose separatism, sedition, and subversion laws on Hong Kong under Article 23 of its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The law was mandated by China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which added the law in November 2017 to an annex of Hong Kong's mini-constitution that requires the city government to legislate.
"I hope that the government will shelve this bill as soon as possible and curtail the current legislative process," Lam told RFA.
"We know very well that the government is required to legislate under Annex 3, but they should carry out a genuine consultation exercise that respects the opinions of the people."
"We have already said very clearly that the national anthem shouldn't become a criminal matter, and people who express their opinions and political standpoint using the national anthem shouldn't be criminalized," he said.
Demand for respect
If passed, the law will criminalize anyone who shows disrespect to the rousing revolutionary anthem, the March of the Volunteers, with maximum penalties of up to three years' imprisonment or a fine of H.K.$50,000.
A draft copy of the bill previously indicated that anyone present in a public place when the March of the Volunteers is being played is required to "stand up and show respect."
Police will be given the freedom to bring charges against suspects for up to two years after the alleged offense. The usual time limit is six months for minor offenses under Hong Kong law.
Pan-democratic lawmakers have criticized the bill for failing to specify exactly what constitutes an "insult," saying the aim of the law appears to be to further stifle freedom of expression in the formerly freewheeling city.
Use of the revolutionary tune, which marks the struggle of the ruling Chinese Communist Party to found the People's Republic, will also likely be banned in advertising, at private funerals, or as background music in public venues.
The move came after Hong Kong football fans repeatedly jeered, turned their backs, and yelled Cantonese obscenities as the national anthem was played over the loudspeakers at the start of recent soccer matches in the city.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung said action was needed.
"I really hope that the pan-democrats and certain young people won't get mixed up in the issue of the national anthem law," Leung said.
"They should really be focusing on the much bigger issues of people's livelihood and welfare ... rather than creating more divisions in society," she said.
The Hong Kong government shelved an initial bid to bring in subversion and sedition laws following a mass street protest of around half a million people in 2003, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party has said it expects the administration to introduce a new bill to the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) that would include a ban on "seditious" or "separatist" speech.
The city's government has also banned the separatist Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) under sedition clauses in colonial-era legislation, and debarred several election candidates for holding "separatist" views in recent years.
The barring of certain candidates because of their political views sparked widespread criticism among barristers, rights groups, and politicians, as well as among former British and Hong Kong officials, who said the move was a blow to democracy and freedom of expression in the former British colony.
Six directly elected pro-democracy lawmakers were stripped of their seats in recent years, after Beijing intervened with a ruling on the validity of their oaths of allegiance, which they had changed in protest, making it harder for the pro-democracy caucus in LegCo to block unpopular legislation.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong people were promised a continuation of their existing rights and freedoms for at least 50 years, including freedom of speech, association and political participation.
But China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) issued a decree on Aug. 31, 2014 that potential election candidates would need to be acceptable to Beijing, sparking the 79-day Occupy Central movement for "genuine universal suffrage."
A recent report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China found that "the long-term viability of the 'one country, two systems' model ... is increasingly uncertain given central government interference."
Reported by Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.