The controversial national anthem law would have a two-year time limit for prosecution, the Hong Kong government revealed on Wednesday in its proposed draft. For crimes of a similar level of seriousness, the time limit is normally six months.

The government will table the draft at the Legislative Council for the first reading on January 23. If the bill goes through, anyone who publicly and wilfully alters the lyrics or the score of the Chinese national anthem, performs or sings it in a distorted or derogatory manner, or insults the national anthem in any other way, will be subject to the maximum penalty of HK$50,000 and three years in jail.

flag raising ceremony
A flag raising ceremony on October 1, 2018. Photo: GovHK.

Cases in violation of the law may involve a large number of anonymous offenders, according to Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip. Nip said that such cases could include those who boo the anthem during football matches or publish altered versions the song online.

In such cases, the police might need more time to complete investigations, Nip said.

The time limit for the prosecution would be set at one year after the police commissioner learns about a relevant crime, or two years after the crime had been committed, whichever date comes earlier.

‘Not unprecedented’ 

Nip said that the extended prosecution time limit was not an unprecedented arrangement. The law would not have retroactive power to regulate acts performed before the legislation is put in place, he added.

“We have to ensure that we can effectively enforce the law. At the same time, we cannot have a time limit that is too long. So we balanced those factors in our proposal,” he said.

Nip said that the draft law would not affect the daily lives of the general public.

“Nonetheless, for those who intend to insult the national anthem, and publicly and intentionally perform acts to insult the national anthem, there is a need to introduce punitive provisions in the bill with a view to deterring such behaviours,” he said.

Nip added that those who did not intend to insult the national anthem, but who have to use materials that are in violation of the law as part of their profession, would not be charged. This demographic includes teachers and journalists.

Hong Kong fans boo national anthem
Hong Kong football fans turning their backs as the national anthem was played at a match in October 2017. File

The Education Bureau will give primary and secondary schools, including international schools, a set of guidelines on how to teach the national anthem.

In the draft bill, the government included a requirement that the anthem be played before lawmakers or executive councillors are sworn into office. It would also be played before important sports events held by the government, and ceremonies opening the legal year, among other events.

Patrick Nip
Patrick Nip.

Asked if lawmakers would be in violation of the law if they were to walk out of the chamber while the anthem plays, Nip did not give a straight answer. He said: “It is normal for them to attend the ceremony respectfully. I don’t think it should be any problem for them.”

When asked if members of the public would violate the law if they sing songs containing parts of the national anthem, Nip said it would depend on the specific circumstances.

“It depends on whether people think the song is the national anthem,” he said. “It also depends on whether people think it is an insult to the national anthem.”

In a nod to the beginning of March of the Volunteers, pop singer Hacken Lees 1998 hit The Football Chronicles begins with the words “arise,” sung in Mandarin.

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Nip said he did not believe Lee’s song was an amended version of the national anthem, although it does contain a few notes of the national anthem. “I don’t see any problem,” he said.

The draft bill also listed occasions in which the national anthem should not be played, such as commercial events and funerals.

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress passed a motion in November 2017 to insert the new national anthem law into the Annex III of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution. The government then drafted the bill to legislate the law locally.

Asked as to why the local version of the national anthem law was tougher than the mainland version, Nip said: “We have different legal systems, so it is normal that we have imposed different punishments.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan said the fact that the government had proposed a longer prosecution period showed that it wanted to take a hardline approach, and be “as tough as possible.”

Civic Party leader and lawmaker Alvin Yeung said that his party would oppose the bill.

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.