Pro-democracy lawmakers have said the government’s proposed national anthem law is unclear as to what is constitutes “insulting” the anthem.

According to the bill set to be proposed on January 23, anyone who publicly and wilfully alters the lyrics or the score of March of the Volunteers, performs or sings the national anthem in a distorted or derogatory manner, or insults the song in any other manner in public or online, risks a penalty of up to HK$50,000 and three years behind bars.

Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok, representing the legal sector, said on Wednesday that residents could easily violate the new law.

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Democrats gather to oppose the national anthem bill. Photo:

“Harming the national anthem’s dignity is a very abstract and subjective concept,” he said. “This is a very big problem. If you look at the national flag and national emblem laws, they are not so abstract, they have clearer guidelines.”

Lawmaker Claudia Mo, who is the convener of the pro-democracy camp, said the government did not explain what is the definition of the term “any other manner.”

“The government intentionally did not tell us, and we have to guess – this is a kind of legal threat,” she said.

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

The controversial law would have a two-year time limit for prosecutions. For crimes of a similar level of seriousness, the time limit is normally six months.

Mo said it was a new provision in the bill and they were not told by Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip about the addition when Nip met her recently to introduce the proposal.

“They want to make sure nobody gets off the hook,” Mo said.

Time and place

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

Lawmaker Eddie Chu said the provision interfered with education: “It should be up to the schools whether to teach it or not.”

Under the bill, the national anthem will be played once, before lawmakers take their oaths of office.

Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong said there were many questions over the arrangement, such as whether all 70 lawmakers have to be present at the ceremony.

“Even if they are present, will it be an insult if they lip-sync the national anthem?” Wong said.

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LegCo reference material for the National Anthem bill. Photo:

Lawmaker Wu Chi-wai, the Democratic Party’s chair, said the party may not support the bill if the government fails to explain the public’s questions in the future.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee, who is chair of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said her party will support the bill: “People will only be punished if they intentionally insult the national anthem.”

She said it was appropriate for the anthem to be played during the oath-taking ceremony: “It will show our respect to the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.”

“If lawmakers truly uphold the Basic Law, truly pledge their allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, there is no need to be worried that their oaths will be invalidated,” she said.

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.