Hong Kong lawmakers
Protesting pro-democracy lawmakers (facing) are blocked off by security (bottom) during a debate on a law that bans insulting China's national anthem, during a session of the Legislative Council (Legco) in Hong Kong on June 4, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Hong Kong: Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passed a controversial law banning residents from disrespecting China’s national anthem, a bill that had sparked physical confrontations between rival lawmakers.

Pro-democracy lawmakers and activists had opposed the law as part of a broader pushback against efforts by China and the city’s Beijing-backed administration to curtail dissent after a year of unprecedented protests. It will go into effect in the city on June 12, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said.

“We’ve reiterated that we hope the public respects the national anthem, which is the symbol and sign of our country,” Tsang said, speaking after the law had passed. “Critics have said that this is an evil law that would suppress freedom of speech. That’s not true. If you do not publicly and deliberately insult the national anthem, you don’t have to worry that you’re breaking the law.”

Introduced in early 2019, the measure imposes a prison sentence of up to three years for people convicted of insulting the anthem or singing it in a “distorted or derogatory” manner - anywhere from online posts to sporting events.

The move to ban Hong Kong’s people from disrespecting the anthem prompted demonstrations in late May, and comes as China works to impose sweeping new national security legislation on the former British colony. Chief Executive Carrie Lam had pushed ahead with the anthem bill despite the opposition, saying in May that it would get priority in the legislature.

At sports events in the semi-autonomous city, residents have often booed the Chinese national anthem, called “March of the Volunteers.” Penned during China’s struggle against the Japanese and later adopted by the People’s Republic of China, it’s become a symbol of Beijing’s interference among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters. The city’s protesters last year created their own anthem, called “Glory to Hong Kong.”

The passage of the bill comes on the June 4 anniversary of China’s 1989 crackdown on activists in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, typically marked in Hong Kong by a mass vigil that has become a flashpoint for political tensions. Hong Kong authorities barred the event this year, citing social distancing measures related to the Covid-19 pandemic.