The Hong Kong government on Wednesday officially introduced the national anthem bill to the legislature, more than a year after the idea was first proposed.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip told lawmakers that Hong Kong had a constitutional duty to enact the law, and the bill had been adapted to fit the city’s unique political and legal background.
“The main spirit behind the [national anthem bill] is respect, and I believe that this spirit of respect is easily understood and easily achieved by members of the public,” Nip said.
“We believe the vast majority of the public will respect the national anthem, therefore the bill will have no effect on their daily lives,” he added.
The proposal drew controversy after the government announced that it would come with criminal penalties. Deliberate alterations to the anthem and derogatory performances can be punished by a fine of up to HK$50,000 and three years behind bars.
Nip said that criminal sanctions were necessary for deterrence, but said the net would not be too wide: “As long as a person had no intention to insult the anthem, there is absolutely no cause for worry, and they will not inadvertently fall foul of the law.”
However, he said the government could not comment on individual scenarios to say whether a crime was committed. That would be a job for the law enforcement authorities and the courts, he added.
The Legislative Council conducted the first reading of the bill on Wednesday afternoon. After that, the bill will need to be discussed at the House Committee, which handles internal affairs, and a dedicated bills committee.
The pro-democracy camp expressed reservations, but did not stage a major protest.
The camp’s convener Claudia Mo said the procedure on Wednesday was only a formality. She said she expects most pro-democracy lawmakers to later join the bill committee on the national anthem law, where details will be debated.
On Wednesday morning, members of the pro-democracy group Demosisto climbed onto the flag-raising podium outside government headquarters to protest the national anthem bill.
The government issued a statement condemning the group, saying activists ignored warnings from security guards to raise a protest banner, causing damage to plants and injuring a guard.
The case has been referred to the police and an investigation is under way, the government added.
“The government respects residents’ right to express opinions, but we also have to ensure the effective, safe and smooth operation of the government headquarters,” the statement said, adding that the flag-raising podium is never open to the public for protests.
In response, Demosisto members said that their action was peaceful, and it was the government’s security guard who tried to forcefully take away their banner.
“It is very unacceptable and we express our strong condemnation,” it said. “Why does the Administration Wing have power to censor residents’ political views and use force to take our banner?”
Demosisto said that the podium had been used in protests in the past, such as during the anti-national education curriculum protests in 2012.
“We urge the government to stop shifting the focus and respond to the public demand to halt the legislative process for the national anthem law,” the group said.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung criticised the protest as “childish” and “politically unwise.”
“If people do stupid acts, which continue to agitate the tension between… Hong Kong and China, I don’t think it is good for Hong Kong,” she said. “People can express their dissenting views, but not [on] the national anthem bill.”
The vast majority of Hongkongers would not want the national anthem to be insulted, Leung added.
Additional reporting: Kris Cheng.