China Moves to Ban 'Disrespect' of National Anthem in Hong Kong, Macau

china-liaisonoffice-110617.jpg The China Liaison Office in Hong Kong is shown in an undated photo.
Official photo

China's parliament has moved to criminalize "disrespect" of its national anthem in Hong Kong following incidents of booing and other protests by the city's soccer fans in recent months.

The National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee voted to add an existing national anthem law to an annex of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, while upping the maximum penalty for "disrespecting the anthem" to three years' imprisonment.

Insertion of the legislation into the annexes of Hong Kong and Macau's Basic Law mean that the two cities must now take steps to incorporate them into their separate legal jurisdictions through promulgation or legislation.

"In recent years, incidents of disrespecting the national anthem have occurred in Hong Kong, challenging the bottom line of the principle of 'one country, two systems' and social morality, and triggering rage among Chinese including most Hong Kong residents," Zhang Rongshun, deputy director of the NPC's legislative affairs committee, recently told the committee.

"It is urgent and important to apply the National Anthem Law in Hong Kong, in a bid to prevent and handle such offenses," Zhang said in comments quoted by state news agency Xinhua.

Serious cases of "disrespecting the national anthem" in public now carry a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment, it said.

Previously, anyone who insulted the "March of the Volunteers" or used it in a manner deemed inappropriate by the authorities would receive an administrative penalty of up to 15 days in detention.

Balance needed

The Hong Kong government said it will comply with the requirement, but added that the law would need to be "balanced" to apply within the city's common-law jurisdiction.

But Justice secretary Justice Rimsky Yuen declined to elaborate when asked by reporters to detail the kinds of actions that could soon entail a prison sentence.

"It is impossible to list every scenario which may be in breach of the national anthem legislation," Yuen said.

"A balance must be achieved between the legislative intent as well as the objective of enacting a national anthem law in Hong Kong and the common law system applied in the city."

"As long as the law's principle is clear, people will know how to behave," Yuen said.

But pan-democratic politicians said the wording in the law is too vague to be helpful.

"It will have to be made clear during the consultation phase exactly what is meant by 'disrespect' or 'insulting' behavior," Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung told reporters. "What meanings do these words include?"

"The government has a responsibility to give citizens a clear and precise definition of those terms," Yeung said. "What if I were to make just a simple physical gesture? Is that respect, or disrespect?
I think people are going to have a lot of questions."

'Blurry language'

Former Bar Association chairman Paul Shieh told local media that there will be no room for "blurry language" if something is to be made a criminal offense.

He also questioned the practicalities of enforcing such laws in a scenario where thousands of soccer fans are booing at the same time.

NPC delegate Fanny Law said the concept should be simple to grasp, however.

And pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung said "public education" is needed.

"We shouldn't overly complicate what is a simple matter," Leung said. "It is common around the world for there to be some show of respect when the national anthem of a country is sung or broadcast."

According to executive councilor and barrister Ronny Tong, certain definitions in the legislation need to be  more clear.

"Some of the details do need to be made clearer, such as the definition of a public place for example," he said. "Also, what is the definition of 'being present' in a given place, and will there be warnings or fines given [in less serious cases]?"

Reported by Tam Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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