Soccer Fans' Booing of Chinese National Anthem Sparks Furor in Hong Kong

china-hong-kong-football-match-sept8-2015.jpg Hong Kong football fans cheer their team during the 2018 World Cup football qualifying match between Hong Kong and Qatar in Hong Kong, Sept. 8, 2015.

Soccer officials in Hong Kong tried on Wednesday to play down a chorus of boos aimed by the city's football fans at the national anthem they share with China, as a key pro-government figure accused the fans of supporting independence for the former British colony.

The Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) said it would be "disappointed" if FIFA punished them after fans jeered the anthem, titled "March of the Volunteers" at Tuesday's World Cup qualifier game against hosts Qatar.

Fans have also booed the anthem at two other home games already this year, prompting a warning from the game's world governing body about future conduct.

HKFA chief executive officer Mark Sutcliffe said the organization had taken steps to encourage people to respect their national anthem, amid simmering popular resentment at Beijing following its refusal to allow fully democratic elections in the semiautonomous city, which was handed back to China by the U.K. in 1997.

"I would be disappointed if FIFA placed any further sanctions on the HKFA," Sutcliffe said in a letter on the HKFA website. "We will just have to wait and see," he said

Pro-Beijing lawmaker and businessman Michael Tien said the booing fans were guilty of disrespecting their own country as well as harboring "splittist" sentiments in favor of Hong Kong independence.

Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Hong Kong at the height of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement last year, after Beijing said that while all 5 million registered voters could cast a ballot in the 2017 election for the city's next chief executive, they would have to choose among candidates pre-approved by the Chinese government.

Smothering the desire for democracy

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology professor Sing Ming said Beijing had smothered Hong Kong people's desire for democracy — a key element of the city's core values.

"A lot of people in Hong Kong feel that Beijing isn't respecting the rights of Hong Kong people [since the handover]," Sing told RFA on Wednesday.

"Hong Kong is very small, so its people see Beijing as a huge, authoritarian power, and this is a safe form of backlash against that," he said.

Sing said there was no law to forbid booing the national anthem.

"There are no restrictions in law, nor in policy, and to punish the people of Hong Kong for such actions would be to add fuel to the fire, and to cause an even more serious deterioration in relations with the mainland," he said.

As well as political unrest, the booing has underscored long-running tensions between Hong Kong residents and their "compatriots" from the mainland, and comes after a string of protests over mainland traders' bulk-buying of goods in the city, and online flame-wars across the internal border.

According to Sutcliffe, the boos had come from a minority section of the crowd at Tuesday's match at Mongkok Stadium, which Qatar won 3-2.

"In my opinion, the number of people booing the anthem and the noise created by them was less than at the other two home matches," Sutcliffe told Agence France-Presse.

"They and the anthem itself were drowned out by people singing their support for the Hong Kong team," Sutcliffe added.

If sanctioned, the team could play the next home qualifier against China behind closed doors in November.

Heaving a sigh of relief

Local media commentators, however, suggest that the administration of chief executive Leung Chun-ying might heave a private sigh of relief if that happens.

According to the Economic Journal, Leung's administration has kept a low profile when it comes to Hong Kong’s progress through the 2018 World Cup Asia qualifiers.

"With the rise of localism and anti-Beijing sentiment in the city, watching a game between Hong Kong and mainland China may not be exactly their idea of fun," the paper said in a commentary this week.

It added: "They certainly would find it embarrassing to be in the stadium where jeers and catcalls could be heard from some Hong Kong fans when the Chinese national anthem was being played."

Leaders might also be unsure of which team to cheer for, not wishing to come across as either unpatriotic or as traitors to their own roots, it said.

Hong Kong political commentator Camoes Tam said there could be several reasons for the antipathy towards the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

"A lot of people in Hong Kong actually support the [Taiwan-based] Republic of China, so they are naturally going to be annoyed at the March of the Volunteers," he said.

"Also, a lot of people in Hong Kong were refugees from the Great Leap Forward [1958-1960] and the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976], so they hate the Communist Party," Tam said.

But he said younger people might have still other reasons for booing the national anthem.

"In the 18 years since the handover, they have seen too many people coming from mainland China and taking their job opportunities, closing off their options for social mobility," Tam said.

"They are also competing for basic necessities of life, including infant formula and hospital beds, so I think the booing of the national anthem could express a general unhappiness with mainland China," he added.

But Tam dismissed the claim that those doing the booing are advocates of an independent Hong Kong.

"I only know about 10 or 20 people who wave the British colonial era flag and call for Hong Kong independence," he said.

"Everyone knows that independence isn't an option for Hong Kong."

Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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