Hong Kong, Mainland China to Clash on Soccer Pitch Amid Heightened Political Tensions

Hong Kong soccer fans rally to support their team in a file photo.

After six months of anti-government and anti-China protests, Hong Kong has geared up to meet the mainland Chinese soccer team in the East Asian Football Championship.

Tensions are likely to be running high at the game, as state-run Chinese media have characterized the anti-extradition movement, which later broadened to include demands for full democracy and an independent inquiry into police violence, as the work of a handful of pro-independence radicals bent on wreaking havoc at the instigation of "hostile foreign forces."

Wednesday's fixture at the Busan Asiad stadium in South Korea comes after the Chinese team lost to both Japan and South Korea. The Chinese team is already out of the running in the competition, but will likely be making a strong attempt to quell Hong Kong in a duel that reflects current political tensions.

China's Sina.com sports channel quoted sources last week as saying that an internal message is being passed around the Chinese Football Association to the effect that the ruling Chinese Communist Party expects the national team to beat Hong Kong.

If China wins, it will avoid being bottom of the table in the final round of the competition, but commentators believe there is also a political dimension to the reported directive.

In recent years, Hong Kong fans have repeatedly jeered, turned their backs, and yelled Cantonese obscenities as China's national anthem was played over the loudspeakers at the start of soccer matches in the city, prompting Beijing to fast-track legislation banning "insults" to the March of the Volunteers, the rousing revolutionary tune that represents the People's Republic of China.

A Chinese fan from the central province of Hunan, who gave only his surname Chen, said he worries that the political atmosphere could put more pressure on the Chinese players.

"They will be more stressed, which will affect their performance," Chen said. "Football results shouldn't be dictated by the government."

"Football requires free will and team spirit, so it's impossible for an authoritarian system like China to produce a good football team," he said.

'Fans will not be happy'

Hong Kong professional footballer Chan Yuk Chi said China's dismal performance so far  on the soccer pitch wasn't for lack of investment.

"China has always invested a lot of resources in football," Chan said. "Even if they make third place, many fans may not be happy, but if they can't even do that, then the fans will be angry, and not just because they lost to Hong Kong."

He said the Chinese team has slightly better performance statistics, and its players are likely better trained and fitter than those from Hong Kong, with its population of seven million, but that a draw is a realistic goal for Hong Kong.

"If the Hong Kong team can do a good job of defending, it shouldn't be too difficult to force a draw, and if they put up a good attack, they could even win it," Chan said.

Lawmakers lose seats

The political woes of the pro-democracy camp deepened on Tuesday with a decision from Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal that unseated two pro-democracy lawmakers.

Au Nok-hin of the Civic Party and Gary Fan of the Neo Democrats lost their seat in the Legislative Council (LegCo) with the court's refusal to accept their appeal against an earlier decision.

Au's unseating was triggered by a legal challenge from debarred candidate Agnes Chow, who successfully argued that an electoral official had failed to give her the chance to reply to allegations that she supported independence for Hong Kong, under new conditions placed on candidate applications by China in recent years.

Fan's loss was similarly triggered by the rejection of his appeal against a petition by debarred candidate Ventus Lau.

Lau and Chow were prevented from running, with Au and Fan stepping up and winning the seats in their stead.

It is unclear whether a fresh by-election will be held ahead of the scheduled end of the current LegCo term in June 2020. Current rules don't allow a by-election to be held within four months of the end of a LegCo term.

System severely compromised

Au said the government should take responsibility for the problems created by its officials.

"This is pretty ridiculous. Why should the electorate suffer the consequences and not the government?" he said.

"It is clear that our electoral system is severely compromised, because returning officers will be able to debar people wanting to run with no fear of consequences. And if you stand a Plan B candidate, and file an election petition, they can unseat you a second time."

Lau said he accepted that the election results were nullified by an earlier court decision that the returning officer had acted illegally.

Nelson Lee, a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Chow and Lau should never have been debarred in the first place.

"The administration cannot get involved in dictating who can and cannot stand for election," Lee said. "If there is no way to clarify the situation, in the absence of the most authoritative court interpretation, then this problem will continue to arise."

Reported by Gao Feng and Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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