A draft policy document put before lawmakers in Hong Kong that seeks to criminalize "insults" to China's national anthem has sparked concerns over how it will be enforced in the former British colony, which was promised freedom of expression under the terms of its 1997 handover to China.
A policy paper submitted to the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Friday would require anyone present in a public place when the "March of the Volunteers" is being played to "stand up and show respect."
Use of the rousing revolutionary tune, which marks the struggle of the ruling Chinese Communist Party to found the People's Republic, will be banned in advertising, at private funerals, or as background music in public venues.
The paper suggests that anyone found "insulting" the national anthem face a maximum penalty of HK$50,000 or three years' imprisonment.
"Anyone who deliberately and openly changes the words or music, or otherwise insulting the national anthem by singing it in a distorting or derogatory way will be breaking the law," the paper said.
"The penalty [would be] the same as in mainland China: maximum three years' imprisonment and a maximum fine of HK$50,000," it said.
Pro-democracy politicians have called on the government to consult widely with the general public about the proposals, and make it very clear exactly what would be considered "insulting."
Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in LegCo, said the proposals were irrelevant to schools, because children in Hong Kong schools are already taught the national anthem, and are below the age of criminal responsibility.
But he raised concerns over how a future law might be enforced in university campuses.
"If serious problems of this kind occur on university campuses, will the relevant criminal liability provisions take effect? This needs to be clarified by the government," Ip said.
Details still unclear
LegCo is required to enact some form of national anthem law, now that China's own National Anthem Law has been entered into an annex of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
But education secretary Kevin Yeung said many of the details of how to apply the law in Hong Kong have yet to be decided on.
"Hong Kong's legislation must take into consideration the legislative intent and background requirements of [China's] National Anthem Law," Yeung said. "When drafting the local legislation, we will make appropriate decisions in accordance with the actual situation in Hong Kong."
LegCo member Dennis Kwok, who represents the law profession, said that a key problem with the law is that everyone has a different idea of what is respectful or disrespectful.
"Something that I think is respectful in a given set of circumstances might be viewed very different by another person," Kwok said.
"The wording around what constitutes deliberately insulting behavior needs to be very clear indeed."
Blurring the difference
Eric Cheung, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said he is worried that the proposed law blurs the differences between Hong Kong's legal system and that of mainland China.
"Hong Kong law doesn't include clauses that are ideological within the text of legislation," Cheung said. "The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government seems to be heading in [that] direction."
"This is very worrying," he said.
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung said LegCo shouldn't try to follow the Chinese law too closely.
"[China's national anthem law] states very clearly that the national anthem has to promote socialism," Yeung said in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK, adding that to do so would be to weaken clauses in the Basic Law stating that Hong Kong's existing capitalist system shall remain separate from mainland China's socialist system.
"The gist of 'one country, two systems' is that we do not have socialism, we have capitalism here in Hong Kong," RTHK quoted him as saying. ""If that becomes part of the Hong Kong law, I have strong concerns that would clash with the principle of One Country, Two Systems and the foundation of the Basic Law."
LegCo member and barrister Tanya Chan agreed.
"Here we see them wanting to insert references to socialism into the national anthem law," Chan told RFA. "But Article 5 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong operates under a capitalist system."
"This contravenes a universal principle of common law in Hong Kong, and it may also be in breach of the Basic Law," she said.
'No right to intervene'
Meanwhile, Beijing has hit out at recent comments from the U.K. over its recent interventions in the political and cultural life of Hong Kong.
In a six-monthly report to parliament on Hong Kong, foreign secretary Boris Johnson called on Beijing to respect Hong Kong's promised high degree of autonomy "in full."
Citing the refusal of entry to Conservative Party human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers by Hong Kong immigration authorities last year, Johnson said he had asked for an explanation from China.
"Beijing’s involvement in this case has strengthened our view that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is under increasing pressure," Johnson wrote in the report.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the U.K.'s comments were unwelcome.
"There is no room or right for the U.K. to intervene," Lu told reporters. "The attempt to show the U.K.'s influence on Hong Kong affairs is in vain and can only lead to Chinese people's antipathy."
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.