The National Football League’s players protest, hashtagged as #TakeaKnee and #TakeTheKnee on social media platforms, has been playing out for weeks.

It was started by quarterback Colin Kaepernick one year ago, when the star NFL player knelt down on one knee, with one arm resting on the other, as the American national anthem was playing in the stadium before a game.

Kaepernick, an activist and a sportsman, chose to “take a knee” in protest against the killing of black people by the police force, but what gave his gesture the resonance it has acquired now was the recent attack on his actions by Donald Trump.

He bellowed that Kaepernick was a “son of a bitch” and that if he refused to stand to attention as the anthem was played he ought to be “fired! You are fired!” The spread of the protest and the debate surrounding it became unavoidable, and social and traditional media cacophony has ensued.

Among the noise, though, an interesting debate has been developing on whether, and how much, the national anthem should be considered “sacred” and whether the sport ritual of playing it beforehand should be taken quite so seriously.

People are wondering how holy we should deem the symbols we ourselves manufacture, and whether we shouldn’t choose individually if we want to regard a song, a flag, a symbol of State and power as sacred. Given the American environment, all opinions are free to air – whether narrow minded and angry or quite illuminating.

American author David Simon, for example, in a recent tweet summed it up in a synthetic, if expletive, way. In the thread that follows, he describes all flags and anthems as just political symbols, adding that to force people into respecting them is simply fascistic.

What is happening in the United States has many relevant parallels with Hong Kong today – minus the interesting debate. Ever since a few independence banners have appeared at some universities in Hong Kong, we too have been enduring quite a cacophony of declaration, but little that has been said has been inspiring.

Government officials and pro-establishment figures have been falling over one another in their condemnation of the banners. They have been denouncing all talk of independence as an affront to morality, while displaying a total inability to distinguish between an action and an idea, or respect the freedom to discuss either.

Among those who are clearer about the essence of free speech, the worry of sending out the wrong signal has been palpable, too, and before starting any discussion most have felt obliged to state that they do not support independence for Hong Kong.

The eagerness to skip all debate to just say that “Hong Kong independence is impossible and illegal” shows that once again those in power in Hong Kong are not talking to local people, but trying to be heard by those in power in Beijing, and making sure that the sounds that reach the north will show them in a good light.

Children welcomed Chinese Olympic delegation at the Hong Kong Airport in 2016. File Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong ought to be more sophisticated than this. In the latest Global Competitiveness Report issued by the World Economic Forum Hong Kong’s ranking for judicial independence has dropped five places to 13th, yet our government pretends that any law, by virtue of being a law, is just and beyond debate.

Is it worth reminding it that slavery was legal, colonialism was legal, and that, until this week, it was illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to drive?

The Hong Kong government professes to be secular, and Hong Kong enjoys freedom of religion: yet increasingly a secular piece of cloth and a secular jingle are invested with holiness.

This is not just a matter of debate, but a very concrete concern: China has recently passed a law that makes it a criminal offense to be “disrespectful” of the national anthem, and it is not entirely clear if Hong Kong can be exempt from its implementation.

After the 1997 handover, as the authorities had to substitute one set of national symbols for another, there was some overlapping that had to be addressed. During one press conference, the former Solicitor General of the Department of Justice in Hong Kong, Robert Allcock, was explaining how what used to be the Crown had to be replaced by the State.

I had asked him if he could define “the Crown” for me. He looked pensive for a short while, and replied: “the Crown is a concept almost mystical in its beauty”. Intrigued, I asked if he would say the same of the Chinese State, but I did not get an answer.

All these years later, as Hong Kong gets worked up at the sight of students hanging pro-independence banners, it is showing that it hasn’t yet gotten rid of the Colonial confusion between secular and sacred.

Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. Follow her on Twitter.