Human Rights Watch has questioned the decision by world football’s governing body to open disciplinary proceedings against Hong Kong fans who booed the Chinese national anthem at World Cup Qualifier matches.

In an article published on Monday, HRW China researcher Maya Wang links the jeers to last year’s pro-democracy Occupy protests, which she says fuelled popular discontent against China that has now spilled over into sport.

“[W]hy should FIFA concern itself with fans’ political expressions, as long as they are peaceful?” Wang asks. “Hong Kong and international law protect peaceful free expression and the right to participate in politics, even if Beijing rejects both.”

Showing FIFA the red card
Showing FIFA the red card. Photo: HKFP.

According to Wang, possible penalties that could be dealt to the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) – including fines and playing in a closed stadium without spectators – are “the athletic equivalent of Beijing’s preferred style of politics.”

Wang says that FIFA has long turned a blind eye to authoritarian regimes’ human rights abuses and “has yet to sanction Iran for banning women from stadiums, and is allowing abusive governments like Russia and Qatar to host future World Cups.”

“Now,” she writes, “it appears to have gone a step further, by actively abetting Beijing’s efforts to deny Hong Kong people the right to express their views and vote freely.”

The dispatch ends with the question, “who is going to show FIFA the red card?”

Hong Kong football fans.
Hong Kong football fans. Photo: Facebook/Hong Kong Premier League.

The HKFA said last Friday that FIFA had opened disciplinary proceedings against fans for booing “March of the Volunteers” during the local side’s recent match against Qatar. FIFA also expressed concern over a Hong Kong fan throwing a 250-millilitre carton of lemon tea onto the field, aiming at a Qatar player.

Hong Kong’s next World Cup Qualifier match will be against China on November 17. The location of the match is still undecided, as HKFA chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak told local media that pitch condition at Hong Kong Stadium were a concern.

If Hong Kong Stadium is not used, Siu Sai Wan Sports Ground will be the HKFA’s second choice.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.