HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong is set on Wednesday to present a controversial bill to lawmakers that prescribes jail terms of up to three years for anyone disrespecting the Chinese national anthem, a move critics say raises fresh fears over freedom of expression in the city.
Chinese authorities have striven to instill greater patriotism in the former British colony at a time of heightened tension between democracy activists and forces loyal to Beijing, with some in Hong Kong even advocating independence from China. Besides imprisonment, the measure would fix a maximum fine of HK$50,000 ($6,373 or P338,157) for those who publicly and intentionally disrespect the anthem, the “March of the Volunteers”. It also extends to schoolchildren, including pupils of international schools, who would be legally required to learn the anthem.
Booing the anthem at soccer matches in the Chinese-ruled territory has emerged as a form of political protest in the past few years, seized upon by young people keen to demonstrate their frustration at Beijing’s perceived creeping influence.
The global financial hub returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a so-called “one country, two systems” formula that promises the city a high degree of autonomy, including freedom of expression.
The anthem proposal is expected to pass easily when it comes to a vote – probably before the summer – as the opposition does not have enough seats to block routine legislation.
Hong Kong has already outlawed the desecration of national flags and emblems, which can attract jail terms of three years.
Calls for outright independence are a red line for China’s Communist Party leaders, who deem Hong Kong an inalienable part of the nation.
But many young people in Hong Kong have become increasingly angered by what they see as China’s encroachment of the city’s culture and autonomy, with some advocating “localism”, or a Hong Kong identity, rather than a Chinese one.
“We have no sense of belonging to China at all,” one football supporter told Reuters. “Even people I know who are born since 1997, they still think they are HongKongers, but not Chinese.”
In 2017, mainland China adopted a law banning disrespect for the anthem. A similar measure is being reviewed in Macau, also designated a Chinese special administrative region.
Opponents and press freedom advocates in the world’s largest gambling hub have criticized a provision for authorities to seek media assistance in anthem promotion campaigns.