The incumbent American and Chinese presidents have a lot in common. Maybe that’s why they seemed to hit it off so well at their first meeting earlier this year. Both want more than anything else to make their countries great again. President Xi Jinping is evoking memories that extend back two hundred years and more to the days of imperial glory when peace and prosperity reigned throughout the land and all the surrounding tributary states paid homage to the Dragon Throne. That was before the humiliating decline of the old order and chaotic first decades of the new.

It’s unclear what President Trump’s historical marker is, except perhaps the halcyon 1980s when it was “morning in America.” But the two presidents also have something else in common as they survey their erstwhile great countries and set about leading them forward. They want their citizens to stand up straight and tall when they sing their respective national anthems and salute their national flags. They want to see solemnity and sincerity on all such occasions, and severe punishments when it is lacking.

They also have similar difficulties reconciling their aspirations for national glory with the civic rights and freedoms written into their respective constitutions.

Patriotism: flags and anthems

So determined is President Trump in this regard that he says any player who refuses to stand to attention when the Star Spangled Banner is played at sports matches should be ordered off the field and rewarded with dismissal. During a recent rousing political campaign rally, he urged team owners and managers to send all such people packing and called on fans to boycott teams that allowed such disrespect for national emblems and symbols.

The immediate case in point was footballer Colin Kaepernick who began his protest last season while the national anthem was being played. At first he only just sat it out and refused to stand. Later he adopted a more respectful posture by kneeling as if in prayer. He explained that his gesture was meant to protest police brutality and racial injustice that he felt betrayed American ideals. His contract was not renewed but he started a trend that has continued to grow since that first game when he went down on bended knee while everyone else stood to attention.

So determined is President Xi Jinping over the same issue that Beijing has just promulgated a national anthem law that will go into effect on National Day, Oct. 1. The new law prescribes the proper occasions for playing the March of the Volunteers and proscribes its use everywhere else. Schools must teach and students must sing in order to promote patriotism. The law will also mandate that everyone must stand up straight while singing the words properly and solemnly. No mockery, no improvisations. Violations can be punished by up to 15 days imprisonment.

Why it’s necessary to pass a national law has yet to be explained, especially since the only place where it might actually be needed is Hong Kong. People here have become increasingly irritated at the many mainland intrusions and constant pressures for cross-border integration.

The irritation has grown along with a gradual realization that Beijing’s promises about local autonomy aren’t quite what everyone was led to believe in 1997 when Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule. The restrictions of mainland political life are real and so is the threat to Hong Kong. They are no longer just subjects for detached academic discussion.

More recently, since about 2015, untoward scenes have been reported at soccer matches when the Chinese national anthem has been played to the sounds of boos and jeers coming from the stands. Hong Kong’s local soccer team has actually been fined twice by the international football association (FIFA) for this violation of its rules about respecting everyone’s national symbols (SCMP, Aug. 30, 2017).

There have also been displays of the same banner that the two errant newly-elected recently-disqualified legislators displayed at their abortive Legislative Council swearing-in ceremony a year ago. The blue banner reads in bold English letters: “Hong Kong is NOT China.”

The new national anthem law is to be made mandatory here, in accordance with Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Article 18. This allows national laws to be introduced as and when Beijing deems necessary. To quiet fears, legal authorities are saying the new law can be adapted for local use and the sanctions need not be identical to those stipulated for use nationwide.

It’s possible the new national anthem law was actually inspired by Hong Kong’s irreverence. But whatever the case, President Xi is not taking any of this lightly. When he was in town to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return in July, he didn’t mince words. He said the growing defiance and especially the new ideas about Hong Kong independence would not be tolerated. He called it Beijing’s “red line” that Hong Kongers must not presume to violate (July 3, 2017, post).

Free speech: an American response

But what if citizens decide they have a just cause? When political realities don’t match ideals, national symbols become perfect platforms for dissent. Superior authority or not, admonitions to desist tend to provoke more defiance.

In the U.S., the “black lives matter” football protest began with just one man from one National Football League team and carried on with only a handful of players as the current season began. But during the Sept. 23 to 24 weekend after Trump’s outburst, many teams and players — over 200 in all — joined the protest.

Not only were they not fired, but team owners and managers joined in as well, rebuking Trump for his divisive rhetoric. And the authority they cited was not the anthem or the flag but something even more basic and just as patriotic. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of religious worship, of speech, and of the press, and “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The gesture was peaceful, the platform patriotic, the grievances real.

Football is a Trump-friendly arena. But when asked to choose between the flag and free speech, by a president that many of them voted for, many chose free speech — or responded by telling him not to ask them to choose while they devised ways of saluting both the flag and their protesting players.

Free speech: Hong Kong dissent

The same sequence of defiance over the right to protest unfolded here as soon as the new school year began on Sept. 4. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Union (CUHK SU) led the way. Giant hand-written black banners containing only four Chinese characters "香港獨立" appeared at the front entrance of the main library building and at culture square. A third banner there proclaimed the message in English.

The square is an open space managed by students outside the amenities building. The words do not actually advocate, but they do declare, “Hong Kong Independence,” in defiance of Xi Jinping.

Bulletin boards in the square are known as CUHK SU Democracy Wall, emulating an old Chinese student tradition. These were soon covered with more provocative bilingual slogans: “Fight for Our Homeland, Fight for Hong Kong Independence.”¹

The authorities found themselves trying to walk the same fine line as NFL team managers in the U.S. — caught between official demands for patriotism and citizens’ right to dissent. CUHK president, Joseph Sung, also known as the vice-chancellor in local terminology, sent out a memo to everyone on campus, dated Sept. 7.

He tried to have it both ways. “The idea of an independent Hong Kong is not only in breach of the Basic Law of Hong Kong,” he wrote, “but also contrary to what I believe. Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China: this is beyond dispute.” But then he continued: “When discussing and debating political issues, our students should always do so peacefully and rationally, and conduct discussion or debate in a respectful and patient manner.”

Word circulated that the students had been told the banners were illegal and must come down. They were illegal because they violated Article One of the Basic Law that says Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. The main library building banner disappeared within 24 hours. Attention focused thereafter on the students’ autonomous space in the square.

Students said they were exercising the right of free speech. Show us the law that denies it, they demanded. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Article 27 grants all the freedoms, and Article 137 grants autonomy to academic institutions.

Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam said it was not a matter of free speech but of Hong Kong’s constitutional basis. Independence violates its “one-country, two-systems” status. Nevertheless, she said she was not interfering in the universities’ autonomy and left it to their administrators to sort out. The administrators, for their part, had trouble deciding between “discussing” and “advocating.”

On Sept. 15, all of Hong Kong’s university heads issued a joint statement: “We treasure freedom of expression,” they wrote, “but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms, it comes with responsibilities.” They all agreed that “we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”²

All the university student unions, citywide, issued a joint reply. They said discussion of independence is legal because free speech is guaranteed by the Basic Law (Apple Daily, Sept. 17).

Meanwhile, the CUHK display of defiance remained in place and in good order until mainland students and others, non-student patriotic vigilantes who came from town, began staging counter protests of their own. Just over 10 percent of CUHK’s 20,000 students are non-locals, mostly mainlanders.

Some of them violated Democracy Wall rules by trying to tear down the original posters and put up unsigned versions of their own. Their main message: “CUSU is not CU” — meaning we are students, too, and the Student Union does not represent us.

Student Union guards did their best to protect the wall. Low-grade insults about mainland toadies and British colonials were exchanged, but no blows were reported.

The patriotic resistance nevertheless could not keep the poster war from spreading to other campuses. Most inexcusable were posters at the Education University that sarcastically “congratulated” one of Carrie Lam’s new appointees in the Education Department on the recent suicide death of her son. The official is a long-time member of the local patriotic community, and of the pro-Beijing teachers union. Her appointment has increased fears that the government is finding ways to re-introduce the same national political study materials that were shelved after city-wide protests in 2012.

Off campus, there were calls from pro-Beijing groups for the police to investigate, and the Department of Justice to prosecute, and for legislation to ban all talk of independence. Others said Hong Kong already had a law that could take care of sedition, which the CUHK episode might well be if it came to a judgment.

Barristers saw another conundrum looming. A former head of the Bar Association, Winnie Tam, warned activists not to try and use on-campus sloganeering to test the limits of the law, and, in effect, Beijing’s patience (Sept. 17, SCMP, Ta Kung Pao).

Everyone understands what she means. Beijing could easily declare another Basic Law “interpretation,” Hong Kong’s judges would then feel obliged to treat the interpretation “as if it had been the law since 1997,” and many more of Hong Kong’s best and brightest would find themselves behind bars.

Finally, on Sept. 21, CUHK students gave in and took down the main “Hong Kong Independence” banner. But in its place, they substituted a new one with implications almost as subversive. The new banner reads: “Oppose Article 23 Legislation.” The Basic Law’s Article 23 stipulates that Hong Kong must introduce national political security legislation criminalizing all such offenses. The government’s first attempt to legislate was withdrawn after city-wide protests in 2003.

The Democracy Wall posters have nevertheless been allowed to remain, testimony to the war of words they provoked. As of Friday, Sept. 29, the notice boards were still full of pro- and anti-independence postings topped off with two prominent copies of Chairman Mao’s official photograph.

The banner draped around the campus Goddess of Democracy statue also remains in place. The statue commemorates Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on its own democracy movement after the 1989 Tiananmen Square occupation by student protesters. The CUHK statue is, for now, wrapped in a black and white striped banner meant to symbolize the fate of those whose names have been written on it. These identify all Hong Kong activists who have been sentenced to jail terms for the various transgressions committed in pursuit of their democratic ideals.


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The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.