Members of the pro-democracy group Demosisto climbed onto a flag-raising podium outside government headquarters on Wednesday to protest the national anthem bill, which is set to be read at the legislature later in the day.

Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, Agnes Chow and other activists ran into the so-called Civic Square in front of the Central Government Offices unannounced at around 10 am. They then attached a banner reading “The freedom not to praise” to the flagpoles.

Demosisto national anthem banner
Demosisto members hang a banner at the flag podium at Civic Square. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Lam, the chairman of Demosisto, said the national anthem law was an attempt to police thought: “We have the right not to express respect to the national anthem, this is the fundamental freedom of every Hongkonger.”

“The government’s legislation is a form of white terror, to get everyone fearing for themselves, and to order everyone to show loyalty to the nation,” he added.

Lam said it was unacceptable that the bill came with criminal sanctions, and urged the government to halt the legislative process and restart public consultation.

The national anthem bill was due to be formally proposed at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, with the first and second reading expected in the afternoon.

According to the bill, 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.

Pro-democracy lawmakers had previously criticised the bill as being vague, and also opposed the requirement that the anthem be played during their swearing-in ceremonies.

Joshua Wong Ivan Lam
Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

At their Wednesday protest, Demosisto also expressed concern over the effect of the national anthem bill on schoolchildren.

“A lot of teachers and schools already teach the national anthem in a critical way,” Lam said, adding that the bill was unnecessary.

Section nine of the proposed national anthem bill states that primary and secondary school students would have to learn to sing the anthem, and learn about the history and spirit of the song. They would also be educated on the etiquette for playing and singing the song. Schools for the disabled and international schools would not be exempt.

Demosisto national anthem banner
Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow protest the national anthem law. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Last week, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung downplayed fears in the education sector, saying that the bill was not influenced by mainland China and that the law did not specify a penalty for disobedient students.

Stunt protest

Demosisto’s stunt on Wednesday took place at Civic Square, the site of a heated debate over the right to protest on government land.

Government security guards tried to stop the activists from mounting the flag-raising podium, but later relented. Police officers recorded video footage of the protest but did not physically intervene.

Joshua Wong national anthem
Demosisto’s Joshua Wong tries to hang a banner at Civic Square. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The activists only stayed briefly at the podium, and police quickly removed the banner after they stepped away.

According to local media reports, the government called an ambulance for one security guard. HKFP has contacted the Administrative Wing for comment.

Speaking to HKFP, Joshua Wong said Demosisto chose Civic Square because it had a thematic connection with the national anthem law: “Civic Square have set up a barrier to restrict people’s freedom of protest – it’s just the same as how the national anthem law will restrict the freedom of expression.

Wong added that his group is planning more direct action and protests on the topic.

pro-beijing national anthem protesters
Pro-Beijing lawmakers receive a letter from protesters supporting the national anthem law. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

A short distance away, a pro-Beijing group held a rally in support of the national anthem law. Members of the group said the law was necessary to protect the solemnity of the anthem.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.