HONG KONG: What You Need to Know About the New National Anthem Bill

HONG KONG: What You Need to Know About the New National Anthem Bill
Credit: AP / Kim Cheung
Why you need to know

Hong Kong's new bill is vague as to what constitutes an insult or parody of 'March of the Volunteers.'

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All things shall come to pass: Hong Kong’s National Anthem Bill is no exception, and it is finally here. I am afraid that not many people were interested in listening to Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen’s (聶德權) press conference or reading the articles in the bill, but it was my job to listen, read and give a general interpretation of them for you.

The first thing to pay attention to: You don't have to worry about “March of the Volunteers,” the national anthem of China, Hong Kong and Macau, playing when new Legislative Council members take their oaths. Whether or not their oath-taking gets invalidated has absolutely no relevance to the National Anthem. This is because once you have a target on your back for aligning with independence or self-determination, you will eventually be taken down and won’t even have the chance to participate in an election.

Hong Kong does not need the National Anthem Bill just to govern these people. Since all legislators must swear their allegiance to the Basic Law and China, playing along by standing quietly and listening to a rendition of “March of the Volunteers” should be a piece of cake. Judges are in the same situation; no judge would be foolish enough to boo the national anthem while being sworn in. These things can be seen as the whistling hot air from the kettle, just the final protests before the bill is finally passed, so don’t get distracted.

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Credit: Reuters / Bobby Yip
Hong Kong fans turn their backs during the Chinese national anthem at a football match between Hong Kong and Malaysia on Oct. 10, 2017.

The drafting of the “National Anthem Bill” has always been focused on the civilians who are most likely to hear the National Anthem every day. These are the citizens who may want to break into the ranks of the Legislative Council (LegCo) at any time.

First of all, the National Anthem Bill stipulates that the national anthem cannot be played casually, nor can it be used as background music in public spaces. In other words, there will never be a day that you suddenly hear the national anthem while walking through a shopping mall or be expected to stand at attention after flushing the toilet.

With that said, there is an extensive list of things we do need to worry about.

The only definite outcome is that the law will create fear.

First, the National Anthem Bill targets “intentional” and “public” insults and belittling of the national anthem, including singing or modifying it, but the law is incredibly broad in defining what constitutes these actions.

During the press conference, Patrick Nip was repeatedly questioned if he had concrete examples, for things such as what constitutes a insulting or derogatory manner. The answer was: “No… there is no way I can take each and every situation and say whether or not it counts.” If we add to this answer the terminology “in any other manner,” as per the text of the National Anthem Bill, it basically means that any action could be interpreted as insulting the national anthem.

As for what they mean by “intentional,” and “public,” there are also no clear definitions. Posts on Facebook or Youtube will definitely be considered in the public domain. But what if you only share things with friends – do Facebook posts limited only to friends also count as public posts? For the time being, it is all a mystery.

Nip made the situation sound better than it is, by saying that everything would ultimately be decided by the court of law. But there is no good argument for the National Anthem Bill to become a new law. Simply put, there has only been one answer to what constitutes actions which break the law: We don’t know.

Covers of the song also land in the grey area, with the government currently saying that “any modification of the national anthem” will be illegal. So directly changing anything in the “March of the Volunteers,” is definitely not allowed. But what about changing only one sentence or even just a word? It depends on whether or not the change feels like it is a part of the national anthem. The only thing confirmed by Nip is that the 1998 hit “The Football Chronicles” by Hacken Lee (李克勤), which begins with a nod to the anthem, will not be banned. As for what makes other covers okay, this was answered with the exact same phrase: We don’t know.

What is even more alarming is that the period of investigation and prosecution for minor offenses is usually only about half a year. However, for this National Anthem Bill legislation, the maximum period is two years after the crime has been committed, or one year after the police have discovered the crime, whichever is shorter.

To summarize, once the National Anthem Bill comes into full effect, the Hong Kong public will face this: A law that could land you in jail for up to three years, even though there is no outline as to what behavior will not be prosecuted, and once you have broken the law you may be sentenced at any time within two years.

In conclusion, without any sort of exaggeration, once a law such as this one comes into effect, the only definite outcome is that it will create fear.

As a result, when the national anthem plays, Hong Kongers will only be able to obediently stand to attention, and covers and parodies of “March of the Volunteers” will cease to exist. That, I am afraid, is what “respecting the national anthem” truly implies.

Read Next: HONG KONG: Looking Back on a Rough 2018 for 'One Country, Two Systems'

This article first appeared on the Chinese-language Hong Kong edition of The News Lens and can be found here. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The News Lens.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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