While in the United States football players have gracefully taken a knee as a form of protest against racial injustice during the customary playing of the national anthem prior to the start of a game, Hong Kong sports fans are booing and flipping their middle finger at their national paean.
For more than two years now, the Hong Kong anthem protests – one of many coarse manifestations of disdain for the powers that be in Beijing 20 years after the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule – have become a routine prelude to home matches played by the Hong Kong national soccer team.
Indeed, in a bid to quash these unseemly anti-China outbursts, FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) has twice fined the Hong Kong Football Association for its failure to control unruly spectators.
The fines, however, only provoked further defiance, exacerbating the protests and leaving embarrassed Hong Kong sports officials in the humiliating position of pleading with fans to stop their disrespectful behavior. But, again, these pleas were met with even more robust and demonstrative protests.
Finally, central government authorities had seen enough. With Hong Kong clearly in mind, the National People’s Congress (NPC), the rubber-stamp Chinese parliament, passed legislation in September criminalizing displays of disrespect for the national anthem, with stiff penalties of up to three years in jail for offenders.
The law was implemented on the mainland last month and has now been written into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, by the powerful NPC Standing Committee, meaning the city is required to adopt it through local legislation.
There is even stern talk among prominent pro-Beijing figures in the city – such as former justice minister Elsie Leung Oi-sie and NPC deputy Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai – of making that legislation retroactive to punish past offenders.
Those threats, however, didn’t deter local soccer fans from carrying out their profane ritual on Tuesday night prior to the Hong Kong team’s Asia Cup qualifying match against Lebanon.
As the familiar martial strains of the Chinese anthem, “March of the Volunteers,” began to play, so too did the booing, jeering, swearing and middle-finger wagging start up. Scores of howling fans quickly succeeded in drowning out the instrumental music broadcast over loudspeakers at Hong Kong Stadium.
Fans had done the same thing less than a week earlier at a friendly match against Bahrain at a smaller stadium in Mong Kok, this time ending their prolonged caterwaul with the defiant cry: “We are Hong Kong!”
To an outsider, these words might simply suggest an admirable local pride, but in heavily polarized Hong Kong they have come to represent a rejection of all things associated with the mainland – from the central government’s authority to Communist Party values of unity and obedience to even the very presence of ordinary mainland people in the city, be they tourists or migrants, who are regarded as ill-mannered, Mandarin-speaking invaders whose newly acquired wealth is buying up Hong Kong and gradually destroying its distinctive East-West, Anglo-Cantonese cultural mix.
Of course, for fans who just want to watch a good soccer match – the silent majority, for sure – the anthem protests are an annoying and, for many, offensive sideshow. After all, as alienated sports enthusiasts in the US have said about the take-a-knee movement, sports and politics should not mix: Let us enjoy the game, please, and save the political debate for another time and place.
The reality, however, is that sports and politics often do become intertwined. In the US, Jackie Robinson finally broke the race barrier in American baseball when the black second baseman joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, a time when segregation was still a legislated reality in the US south. And – read the biography, watch the movie – he suffered greatly for his determination and his courage.
Now, 71 years later, American football’s take-a-knee protests are a reminder that, although black and other minority athletes abound in the 21st-century US sports world, racism is still prevalent in other aspects of society.
Critics argue that the law will be unenforceable in Hong Kong – where, unlike on the mainland, courts remain independent from the government and the British common-law system still prevails
Back in Hong Kong, the issues may be different, but the emotions run just as high and the frustrations are just as real. If the rowdy protests in Mong Kok seem crude and insulting in comparison with the dignified symbolism of those silent, kneeling, neatly aligned athletes in the US, maybe that’s because the Hong Kong protesters are ordinary people who feel their own livelihoods and personal freedoms are under threat rather than millionaire sports stars who may drop to one knee during the national anthem but afterward rise and, thanks to their wealth and celebrity, live and work largely above the fray.
In fact, fewer and fewer players have been taking a knee in recent weeks as the fad passes and football, racism and life move on in the US. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the anthem protests are likely to continue and even intensify as the Hong Kong government, bowing to Beijing’s authority, moves to enact legislation intended to force-feed patriotism to people who refuse to eat.
Critics argue that the law will be unenforceable in Hong Kong – where, unlike on the mainland, courts remain independent from the government and the British common-law system still prevails.
The mainland law pledges to “preserve the dignity of the national anthem” so as to promote patriotism and “cultivate … socialist core values.” It also stipulates that “those present shall stand and deport themselves respectfully” as the anthem plays. Penalties for offenders range from 15 days in detention to three years in prison under the country’s criminal code.
But how to judge whether everyone present has shown proper respect for the anthem – not just during boisterous soccer matches but also at official government functions and in the city’s primary and secondary schools – is not a question many judges in Hong Kong are eager to take up. And the law promises to be a nightmare for law-enforcement officers if they are asked, for example, to round up hundreds of jeering soccer fans and throw them in the pokey.
In the end, then, the law may be just another impractical and ineffectual attempt by the Chinese leadership to bring truculent Hong Kong to heel.
It’s no coincidence that the soccer protests started soon after the Umbrella Movement – pro-democracy demonstrations that paralyzed key sections of the city for 79 consecutive days – sputtered to a futile end in December 2014. Since then, pro-independence lawmakers have been democratically elected to – and subsequently banished from – the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, leaders of the 2014 protests have been jailed and central government authorities from President Xi Jinping on down have called for Hong Kong to shape up and toe the party line.
The result of all this: more boos, more jeers, more protests.