Explainer: Hong Kong's China national anthem bill aims to enforce 'respect'

Greg Torode
People wearing face masks take part in a protest against the second reading of a controversial national anthem law in Hong Kong

By Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's Legislative Council passed a bill on Thursday that would criminalise disrespect of China's national anthem, a move critics see as the latest sign of Beijing's tightening grip on the city.


WHAT IS IT?

Now it has been passed into law, Hong Kong’s National Anthem legislation governs the use and playing of the Chinese national anthem.

The bill included provisions that threaten to punish those who insult the anthem with up to three years jail and/or fines of up to HK$50,000 ($6,450). The bill stated that "all individuals and organisations" should respect and dignify the national anthem and play it and sing it on "appropriate occasions". It also orders that primary and secondary school students be taught to sing it, along with its history and etiquette.


WHY IS IT CONTROVERSIAL?

Anti-government protests last year were primarily aimed at resisting further integration with mainland China. The Chinese national anthem has been booed at several events, including football matches.

Protesters and pro-democracy politicians say the bill represents the latest sign of accelerating interference from Beijing in the freewheeling former British colony.

Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that the city's core freedoms and way of life would be protected under a "one country, two systems" formula, which Beijing says it respects.

The freedoms of speech, press, association and demonstration are explicitly written into the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that guides Hong Kong’s relationship with China, its sovereign power. Opponents of the bill say those freedoms are now under threat.

More technically, some senior lawyers fear the bill is highly unusual in that it, in part, reflects the ideological aspirations of China's Communist Party that might prove difficult to enforce.

"It is the first Hong Kong law I've seen that looks like it was written in Beijing," one senior judge told Reuters recently, speaking privately. "It will be a nightmare to rule on."

The Hong Kong Bar Association acknowledged the need for such laws but said parts of the bill "deviate from the good traditions" of Hong Kong’s common law system.

It said there was a fundamental difference between that system and the "socialist legal system of mainland China which would include political ideology and conceptual guidance".


WHERE DID IT COME FROM?

For years, Chinese officials and their pro-Beijing allies in Hong Kong have wanted to instil a greater sense of patriotic pride across its freest, and most restive, city.

Hong Kong's government says the bill reflects the city's own legal system and situation.

"The main spirit of the … bill is 'respect', which bears absolutely no relations to 'restricting freedom of speech' as claimed by certain members of the community and definitely not a so-called 'evil law'," a spokesman said earlier this year.


WHAT'S NEXT?

Protests over the bill are widely expected amid wider anti-government demonstrations as the city braces for new national security laws imposed by Beijing.

The government, under pressure from Beijing, prioritised passing the delayed bill into law before the end of this four-year legislative session in July. Its passage through the council sparked months of intense procedural battles between pro-Beijing and pro-democratic forces.

Once it takes effect and is enforced, constitutional challenges can be expected in courts.

($1 = 7.7502 Hong Kong dollars)


(Reporting By Greg Torode; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Michael Perry and Andrew Cawthorne)